NASHVILLE – State Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s effort to cut felony conviction expungement fees in half received a strong endorsement today in the form of bipartisan support.
The legislation, which would reduce the fee to $180 from $350, advanced from the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee with support from the panel’s chairman, Republican Rep. Tilman Goins of Morristown.
Calling it a “very good bill” he intends to co-sponsor, Goins said, “It’s unfortunate that the way our justice system is sometimes, it tends to favor people with money versus those without.”
Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, said she is sponsoring the measure for one simple reason.
“We do not think that anybody should be defined by the decisions they made on their worst day. And if we can give people an opportunity towards redemption, that’s what we want to do,” Akbari said.
Helping put convicted, non-violent felony offenders back to work and encouraging them to be active in their community can cut recidivism rates, Akbari said.
The $350 fee, when combined with $100 more in additional fees, makes Tennessee’s felony expungement fee totaling $450 the third highest in the nation, she said.
Akbari sponsored similar legislation in 2016, but it stalled in the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee because it was expected to reduce government revenue by $140,000. The fiscal impact could increase this year, she has said, because the bill would remove money from the state’s general fund, but leave $130 allocated for district attorneys and $50 for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Clerks would lose $10 per fee, and public defenders would lose funds targeted for expungement training, according to Akbari.
The fiscal note attached to the legislation shows the general fund would be reduced $131,400 while the public defenders’ expunction fund would drop $13,100 and the district attorneys expunction fund would lose $500. Court clerks would see $9,100 less statewide.
Josh Spickler of the Memphis nonprofit group Just City called today’s action “the first step of many” in reducing the fee, which jumped to $350 from $50 in 2010-11. Just City focuses on providing legal counsel and limiting the impact of the criminal justice system on people’s lives.
Despite the expected loss of money to the general fund, Spickler said, “The best thing about this bill … is that it has a relatively low fiscal note.” He noted the impact should be minimal on groups such as public defenders.
It also has the support of legislators “of all stripes,” Spickler said, commending Akbari for her efforts in gaining support in the General Assembly.
Reducing the expungement fee will help people clear their criminal record so they can obtain better jobs with higher pay, regular schedules and health benefits, all of which can help them build a strong home life, according to Spickler.
Akbari believes cutting the fee is the difference for many in putting their lives “back on track.”
Parole bill moves
Parole-related legislation by Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis advanced to the House Criminal Justice Committee after a slight change today.
Approved unanimously by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, the bill requires the Board of Probation and Parole to meet and order the release of a parolee whose parole has been revoked and who has been sent back to prison for probation violation even though it is later dismissed. The bill was amended to say the state board “may” release the prisoner to ensure it hears its own set of evidence before making the decision, based largely on new evidence provided by district attorneys, according to Parkinson.
“I do consider it a common-sense piece of legislation and needed,” said Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat. “A problem was identified, and now what we’re doing as a Legislature, we’re working on a global solution for it, and hopefully we won’t have the problem again.”
Parkinson is sponsoring the measure in response to the imprisonment of Nashvillian Robert E. Polk, whose parole was revoked because his wife accused him of threatening her with a gun, according to reports. The woman later recanted, and charges against Polk were dropped, but the board has not approved his release. His next hearing is reportedly set for January 2018.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.