The Criminalization Of Poverty In Tennessee


The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security suspended more than 320,000 driver’s licenses due to criminal debt between 2012 and 2016.

 14 percent of Tennessee’s population lives below the poverty line, and while communities faced unaffordable housing costs, unemployment, and inadequate public transportation, counties used public funds to expand jails. From 1970 to 2019, Tennessee’s jail population rose 761 percent. Free Hearts, a statewide organization that provides support, education, and advocacy for families impacted by incarceration in Tennessee, surveyed residents about their experiences with poverty and the criminal legal system. This report analyzes incarceration rates and results from the Decriminalize Poverty Survey to highlight how the criminalization of poverty impacts Tennessee communities. 

You can read the full text here.  

Key Findings:

  • 51 percent of Free Hearts’ Decriminalize Poverty Survey respondents previously owed or currently owe court costs, tickets, or other fines and fees.
  • With over 17 percent of residents in Hamblen County living below the poverty line and over 55 percent of its county jail population awaiting trial, the county has plans to spend at least $73 million to build a new 500-bed jail. 
  • Weakley County has had a rapidly declining economy since 2000, when manufacturing jobs fell by over 40 percent, causing a 25 percent increase in people living in poverty; at the same time, the county opened a new and larger jail, and the county’s incarceration rate increased threefold.
  • Wilson County has few shelters and no affordable housing to combat a 35 percent increase in rental prices; County commissioners approved $40 million in municipal bond debt to double the county jail’s capacity at the end of 2022.


  • Eliminate money bail and pretrial release costs for defendants in the criminal legal system.
  • Eliminate all criminal legal fees and costs.
  • Prohibit the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees.
  • Prosecutors should decline to prosecute cases that are rooted in poverty.
  • Reinvest in services, resources, and community processes from cost savings from reduced incarceration.
Jack Norton, Stephen Jones, Bea Halbach-Singh, Jasmine Heiss, & Free Hearts Leadership
Vera Institute of Justice