Reducing the Harms of Court Debt: Driver’s License Revocations are an Ineffective Policy for Increasing Court Collections


The typical Tennessean defendant with court debt has an income between $5,300 and $9,377 annually, 39 to 69 percent of the federal poverty level.

Since 2011, Tennessee law has allowed for the revocation of a driver’s license for overdue court debt, but a temporary policy change from July 2018 to July 2021 halted driver’s license revocations for unpaid court debt and allowed for unprecedented data collection. The authors of this report used that data to determine whether driver’s license revocation increased court collection. They found driver’s license revocations did not result in increased collection rates and believes ending revocations would lower recidivism rates and boost the economy.

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Key Findings:

  • Tennessee’s statewide collection rate was 36 percent for court costs in 2021.
  • The two percent increase during the time driver’s license revocations were halted is not statistically significant.
  • Between 2018 and 2021, two events impacted collection rates; pandemic-related court closure led to a sharp decline, and the third round of economic stimulus payment led to an increase in the March and April of 2021. 
  • Most counties experienced higher collection rates before Tennessee state law allowed the revocation of driver’s licenses for court debt in 2011.


  • Eliminate driver’s license revocations for unpaid court debt.
  • Eliminate uncollectible fees, fees with the lowest collection rates.
  • Require ability-to-pay assessments to be used consistently.