State Director, Tennessee/Kentucky
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Julie Warren | July 28, 2017
Across the country, folks are beginning to understand that unsuccessful re-entry policies contribute to high recidivism rates. We especially see more conservative lawmakers question whether the prohibitions or impositions directed toward individuals re-entering society are effectively serving the interest of public safety – or if they’re setting them up to fail.
For example, during the 2017 Legislative Session – and at the request of the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice – the Legislature agreed to review a law they passed years earlier that required the automatic revocation of an individual’s driver’s license if they failed to pay their court fines and fees within one year of their release. Plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of this policy have alleged that, since 2012, a total of 146,211 driver’s licenses were revoked due to unpaid court fines and only 7% of such licenses were reinstated. (Thomas v. Haslam. 2017. Case 3:17-cv-00005 (January). To top it off, Tennessee still had one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. During their review, lawmakers carefully considered the plight of the 5,000 individuals who re-enter society each year. Lawmakers acknowledged the difficulty offenders experience trying to satisfy their court bill, coupled with the importance of maintaining a driver’s license to secure employment, take care of their families, and invest in their communities. By an overwhelming majority, lawmakers voted to amend the law to accommodate those indigent individuals who cannot pay their court bill without experiencing undue hardship. Alternatives to revocation were adopted for indigent offenders, which included allowing the court to development of a payment plan or waive the fees altogether.
There remains a number of laws and regulations that necessitate this form of critical review. Lawmakers in Tennessee should be commended for their decision to roll back a draconian sanction.