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VOL. 131 | NO. 60 | Thursday, March 24, 2016

Expungement Fees Get Legislative Scrutiny

By Bill Dries

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It’s become a rallying cry in the movement for changes in the local criminal justice system – raising private money to pay the $450 expungement fee to wipe away the criminal records of those convicted of single, non-violent offenses who have stayed out of trouble for five years.

Two local funds are raising money to pay the $450 expungement fee for non-violent offenders to clear their criminal records. Meanwhile, there is a proposal in the Tennessee Legislature to reduce the fee by $100.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The dollar total is not a single fee but two fees – a filing fee of $350 and another $100 fee to the clerk whose office handles the expungement.

And the money is a small revenue stream set up by state law that is split five ways.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland hosted a fundraiser at Hattiloo Theater Monday, March 21, that raised $55,000 in private donations for an expungement fund he started.

“It’s a hurdle that’s too high,” Strickland told a group of several hundred who gathered in the lobby of the Overton Square theater.

Strickland proposed a privately funded expungement fee treasury of sorts during his 2015 run for mayor as he talked of getting tougher on violent crime but offering alternatives to non-violent offenders.

He hopes to grow the fund to wipe out a waiting list of 100 the District Attorney General’s office has of those eligible for expungement who have applied but don’t have the fee.

“If we can wipe out the waiting list then we’ll have money as they walk in and they won’t have to wait,” Strickland said.

The Just City reform group is also building an expungement fee fund. Kerry Hayes was among leaders of Just City who attended Strickland’s fundraiser.

“If there’s a way we can work together and help even more people, we are thrilled for the opportunity,” Hayes said of the two efforts.

Strickland said there is no competition between the two groups.

“We are all rowing the boat in the same direction,” he said.

Hayes is uncertain about the end of a waiting list for expungement, but there are efforts in the state Capitol to do away with the fee entirely or at least reduce it.

“The need for the fund is because the fee that’s required is so onerous. $450 is by order of magnitude the largest fee that exists on the Shelby County court fee schedule,” Hayes said. “If we can work legislatively to lower that fee or eradicate it altogether, which we are, maybe the fund becomes redundant and we can apply these funds some other way.”

Memphis Democrat Raumesh Akbari is the House sponsor of a bill that would reduce the $350 fee for the expungement of criminal records by $100, but keep the $100 clerk’s fee for expunging records.

The $100 fee is controlled by a different statute.

Akbari’s bill applies to the expungement of criminal convictions, not diversion agreements where there is a different kind of plea by a defendant.

The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Maryville Republican Doug Overbey, comes with a fiscal note of $417,200. That’s how much revenue state and local government entities would lose by the original estimate of doing away with the entire fee.

Akbari is meeting with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration to find ways to make up for the partial loss in revenue in Haslam’s final budget, which is the legislature’s last piece of business before adjournment for the year.

The $350 “filing” fee is split five ways.

The largest amount of each fee, $145, goes to the state’s general fund. Another $130.50 goes to the District Attorneys Expunction Fund; $50 to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; $14.50 to the Public Defenders Expunction Fund; and $10 to the court clerk who collects the fee.

The share to the court clerk is in addition to the separate $100 clerk’s fee also collected.

“Those were the numbers that the different groups involved … said they needed to get things accomplished to be able to do the research to actually determine if a person is eligible,” Akbari said. “But there is a large portion of that money that just goes to the state’s general fund. And that is the portion that I am trying to have taken out.”

The state general fund revenue generated by the fee is $134,000 a year.

The Public Defenders group has agreed to waive its portion of the revenue, which is $13,400.

With a roll back of some sort, Akbari hopes to continue the discussion about whether the reduced fee is what is required to pay the administrative costs of an expungement.

“I’m hoping this will pass and we can reduce it even more,” she said. “The comptroller’s office is not currently tracking if it actually costs the entity the amount that they are charging.”

But the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts has just begun a three-year study of the cost of expungements.

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