‘Socially Acceptable Chains’

Imani Mfalme-Shúla

'Socially Acceptable Chains'

In Tennessee, criminal sentences can include more than 360 different fees and fines. Reform advocates say they can pose insurmountable obstacles.

by jesse fox mayshark • october 20, 2021

Imani Mfalme-Shúla

imani mfalme-shúla of community defense of east tennessee speaks during an online panel Tuesday.

One of the ostensible goals of the criminal justice system is to keep former prisoners from returning to jail. But often, it’s the system itself that reincarcerates them.

From cash bail to post-release debts, a layer of punishment that is hard to escape.

“When you look at the reasons people are returning, there are two: There's technical violations, and there’s picking up new charges,” said Genevieve Turner, community engagement officer for the Knoxville-based 4th Purpose Foundation, during a panel discussion Tuesday. “We are on the rise for reincarcerating people solely because of technical violations. In Knox County, only 17.5 percent of people who returned to prison in 2020 were because of a new charge that was picked up.”

Often, those technical violations include or are exacerbated by a failure to pay fees and fines, which can linger long after any jail term has been served.

That was the focus of Tuesday’s virtual panel discussion, organized by the Sycamore Institute, a nonpartisan Nashville-based policy group. Besides Turner, the other panelists were Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond and Imani Mfalme-Shúla of Community Defense of East Tennessee.

“When you take a person who's already poor, and you say I'm going to punish you financially, that punishment is exacerbated just because that person is poor,” said Mfalme-Shúla, whose nonprofit organization works with families entangled in the criminal justice system. “We are essentially saying that we are OK with the socially acceptable chains that we are willing to put on people who are poor, and that we are OK with criminalizing poverty.”

The Sycamore Institute has spent months studying the role of fees and fines in criminal justice across Tennessee and hosting community conversations about the issue in its largest cities. Knoxville was the fourth, after Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga.

“Defendants’ different economic backgrounds necessarily mean financial penalties aren't felt evenly,” said Mandy Pellegrin, Sycamore’s policy director, in giving a quick overview of the institute’s findings. “For those who are unable to pay fees and fines, these costs can make it hard to pay their debts to society and reintegrate into their communities, and prolong their involvement in the criminal justice system.”

Pellegrin said one problem in even understanding the issue is the lack of statewide data. Many financial assessments are at the discretion of judges and prosecutors, and there is no way to track them from courtroom to courtroom and county to county. The little data available suggests wide variations in how the more than 360 fees and fines allowed by state law are levied.

“What our research shows is that we've got where we are through piecemeal policymaking decades in the making,” Pellegrin said. “Our hope is that with this research we will help Tennessee policymakers understand where we are and how we got here, making it easier for them to take the first step towards addressing the problems that they see with the current system.”

Hammond, whose office is responsible for collecting fees and fines for Knox County criminal courts, acknowledged that the system can be confusing for people. He said the fee categories established by Tennessee state law run to 62 pages.

“For example, if you look at just aggravated assault, there are 10 different charges — could be 10 different fee schedules,” Hammond said. “Another example is ‘boating under the influence,’ there are seven different charges. And the list goes on and on and on.”

Hammond said he has worked with Knox County judges to make some aspects of dealing with the system easier. For example, he has had success with a program to help people regain their driver’s licenses after losing them through criminal penalties, and with twice-a-week expungement sessions to help clear criminal records.

Hammond said he has seen a growing willingness among local officeholders to rethink practices that have, among other things, given Knox County one of the state’s higher percentages of defendants being held in jail while awaiting trial. As of August, 79 percent of inmates at the county’s Roger D. Wilson Detention Facility were pretrial detainees.

“I know that there are conversations being held in Tennessee about bonds, the bonding companies, the whole bail bonds issue,” Hammond said. He said state Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, visited Knox County recently to talk about ideas for bail reform that he plans to introduce in the Legislature. Some states have moved to eliminate bonds and cash bail altogether.

Mfalme-Shúla said there’s a need for more alternatives to incarceration that don’t place an unsustainable economic burden on people accused of crimes and their families. 

“We would also like to see some of the money from the (federal) COVID relief to be put into a community-based release project,” she said. She offered the example of her own group, which sits in bond hearings with defendants and helps guarantee resources — like transportation to a trial date — that can make the difference in someone being released without bail.

Turner said the growing chorus of conversation about reform creates an opportunity to confront some fundamental questions about our ideas of justice. The 4th Purpose Foundation was established by Knoxville entrepreneur Josh Smith, a former federal inmate who has committed a chunk of his fortune to advocate for changes in the criminal justice system.

The Sycamore Institute has published a list of 11 reform options for policymakers to consider, including reduced and standardized fees, expanded pretrial release, and a more precise way of measuring a defendant’s ability to pay fees or fines — which is currently subject to judicial discretion.

“Historically, taking away someone's independence, their individual freedoms and liberties, has been what we have deemed punishment to be for crime,” Turner said. “However, it looks like we've moved on — we continue to punish people while they're incarcerated, we continue to punish people once they've been released, we continue to punish people's families with the charges that we have.”