published Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Plan to make crime help fund Tennessee government doesn't

Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons
Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons
Photo by Tracey Trumbull /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

BREACH OF OBSERVANCE

A 2011 law requires county court clerks to let the state know about people with criminal convictions who aren't paying fines and court costs. But of Tennessee's 95 counties, only nine are complying. They are:

Davidson

Giles

Hamblen

Hamilton

Knox

Loudon

Madison

Shelby

Washington

Source: Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security

NASHVILLE — State lawmakers thought a 2011 bill allowing revocation of driver's licenses for deadbeats who failed to pay criminal fines and court costs would reap millions in reinstatement fees.

But seven months into the first year of operation, only nine counties are complying and the state has collected just $22,425.

The shortfall has left a gaping hole in the department's budget, Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons said last week.

"The department is requesting $7.6 million in supplemental funding for the current fiscal year in order to correct the overestimate of driver's license reinstatement fees," Gibbons told Senate Transportation Committee members.

The law requires county court clerks to notify the state of scofflaws who've gone at least a year without paying anything toward fines and costs. The department then revokes their licenses until they start to pay up.

Tennessee charges $65 for each license reinstatement plus an additional fee for the license.

Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell is among those participating. So are clerks in the three other largest counties -- Davidson, Knox and Shelby.

A number of counties are "working on methods to provide notices electronically" to the state, Gibbons said.

This month, the commissioner fired off a letter to clerks in all 95 counties reminding them of the law.

Part of Gov. Bill Haslam's "public safety action plans," the letter points out, calls for improving collections of fines and fees in criminal cases "as a way of holding convicted offenders accountable and increasing payment owed" to the state and counties.

Tidwell said she has one staffer doing the work to comply with the law, which she calls "a hassle."

"We have to fill out paperwork and then mail it in to them," Tidwell said.

But in the last 30 days or so, she said, the Safety Department has set up a system so clerks can report electronically.

At the time the 2011 law passed, some lawmakers complained that it would be difficult to get many people to pay because the Legislature in recent years has increased fees and fines as an alternative to raising taxes.

The legislation was brought by Metro Nashville's Criminal Court clerk's office. The fiscal note accompanying the bill says that in 2009, 328,000 people had committed a criminal offense that put them under the driver's license revocation proposal.

Of those, 75 percent, or 246,000, didn't pay their fines. The fiscal note estimated that 25 percent, or 61,650, scofflaws would seek to reinstate their licenses. Legislative analysts projected the reinstatement fees would generate $4 million for the state, plus $900,000 or so from driver's license fees. Average litigation taxes run about $500, with 16 percent going to state government. That would generate another $1.23 million. The total projected take was $6.1 million for the state and $6.4 million for local governments.

Tidwell said workers in her office tell her the revocation is bringing people in to pay their finds and fees, "so it's working."

"To what extent, I don't know," Tidwell added. "It's a problem across the state that criminals don't pay what they owe."

While that "surprises the heck out of everybody," Tidwell said, "it's just a fact of life. We're doing and I'm sure other offices are doing everything to collect."

Tidwell said the law has two potential impacts -- one positive and one negative:

"It's either going to increase collections or it's going to increase our 'driving on revoked license' charges," she said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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