How Tennessee Judges Look at Defendnats’ Ability to Pay Fines and Fees

People in Tennessee’s criminal justice system can accrue a multitude of fines and fees, but the impact depends on their ability to pay them. This report dives deeper into ability to pay as a potential policy option to address the side-effects of fines, fees, and other legal financial obligations. The authors examine how a person’s ability to pay factors into what they owe, highlighting options for state-level policy change. 

You can read the full report here

Key Findings: 

  • Tennessee state law is inconsistent and ambiguous as to how and when officials should assess a defendant’s ability to pay and waive or modify financial obligations.
  • State law permits courts to base the imposition of financial obligations on hardship, indigency, and ability to pay without defining those terms.  
  • Some ability to pay rules only apply after a person has not paid and is facing legal consequences. 
  • In practice, judges vary in how they determine ability to pay legal financial obligations, often requiring different kinds of financial information. 
  • There is no consistent point at which a court reviews a defendants’ ability to pay.


  • Collect better data on the practices used to determine a defendant’s ability to pay.
  • Require more consistency in when and how courts review and make accommodations for a defendant’s financial situation. 
  • Consider a sliding-scale system of fines that automatically varies based on a defendant’s financial resources. 
The Sycamore Institute