VOL. 132 | NO. 114 | Thursday, June 8, 2017
View From the Hill
A New Life Made Possible by a $170 Discount
By Sam Stockard
A harassment conviction lingered on the record of Memphis resident Brenda A. for 10 years, the high cost of expungement making it difficult to erase the past.
Like many people convicted of misdemeanors and felonies, she paid her court fees and fines, along with probation costs, years ago, but had trouble cobbling together the money to expunge her record, making it hard to land a good job and make a fresh start.
An advocacy group called Just City, though, put its Clean Slate fund to work and paid her $450 fee, more or less setting her free to tell everybody “God is good.”
Says Brenda: “They really gave me my life back.”
Memphis-area lawmakers are trying to do the same for people statewide.
Under legislation signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, expungement fees for convictions have been reduced to $180 from $350. The bill was spearheaded this session by Memphis Democratic Rep. Raumesh Akbari and Senate Republican Majority Leader Mark Norris.
“The bottom line is this: We believe that people should not be judged for the rest of their lives for the decisions they make on their worst day,” Akbari says. “By reducing part of the financial barrier to expunction, more ex-offenders will be able to get their lives back on track, reducing the recidivism rate and strengthening our communities.”
At age 49 and with two teenage children, Brenda started making the most of her new situation before Haslam signed the bill. She’s engaged to be married, holds a job and is enrolled in a local college to earn a nursing degree.
Brenda advises everyone to stay out of trouble but tells them to contact Just City for help in case they do get into a scrape with the law.
The group is made up of activists, attorneys and civic leaders in Shelby County and statewide who want to ensure people get their right to legal counsel and help limit damage to families and neighborhoods from encounters with the criminal justice system.
The group takes donations from people who want to make sure individuals get a second chance, and the state’s expungement fee reduction means Just City’s Clean Slate fund will go much further, says its director, Josh Spickler.
“This is a particularly acute problem in Memphis, but the beauty of the governor signing the bill is it affects people in Knoxville, in Johnson City and Chattanooga and all over the state where people are often held back from having a clear record because of money,” Spickler explains.
This is only a start, though, because roughly two-thirds of the expungements statewide are needed to clear people on diversion, those who are placed on probation for a period of time with the understanding that if they complete probation, the charge will be dismissed.
They still have to come up with that $450 to expunge their record after they pay court costs and fines. It’s a fee many people can’t afford, and like Brenda, they allow the conviction to hang around on their record, making it hard for them to find a decent job.
Spickler says Just City will lobby for a similar law changing the expungement fee for pre-trial diversion cases, which make up the majority of expungements, when the Legislature convenes in 2018.
Tennessee could even consider allowing some convictions and non-conviction charges to be expunged automatically, as a number of states do.
“After a certain period of time, a lot of misdemeanors are cleared from a person’s record in other states. Not in Tennessee,” he adds.
In addition, Just City will focus on driver’s license eligibility reform, instances in which a person’s license is suspended for non-driving-related reasons, those often associated with child support and court costs, leaving people unable to drive to work or to find a job.
“It’s just bad policy and very expensive,” Spickler explains, noting a lawsuit against the state over the situation is pending but could have a legislative fix.
Akbari’s measure is part of a criminal justice reform package backed by the Legislature’s Black Caucus and the Democratic Caucus. She also passed bills making it easier for juveniles to have their criminal records expunged and to allow a person with two convictions to get a one-time expunction for both.
“These three pieces of legislation are a good start to help people get their lives back on track and get back to work,” Akbari points out.
They’re among several bills Democrats pushed this session to reform criminal justice.
Memphis Democratic Rep. Dwayne Thompson, in his first term, passed legislation helping non-violent ex-offenders gain jobs by allowing them to petition the court for a certificate of employability at the same time they seek to restore their rights of citizenship.
Thompson says the measure enables former felons to become “productive citizens,” cutting the chances they’ll return to prison, which reduces the cost of incarcerating people and makes “our communities a little safer from crime.”
Memphis Democrats Rep. Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Lee Harris passed bills to change the composition of the Tennessee Board of Parole to increase expertise in corrections, probation and parole, and then to force the board to meet as soon as possible in cases when someone is wrongfully imprisoned.
The latter measure stemmed from the wrongful incarceration of a Nashville resident, Robert Polk, who was sent back to prison for a parole violation based on a lie.
Harris points out thousands of people are imprisoned or released each year and called the work of the parole board “suspect.”
“It is not performing well,” Harris says, but this legislation should make it fairer and more expeditious.
“If you are back in prison due to a false charge, you deserve a hearing, and fast,” Parkinson adds. “This bill forces the Board of Parole to meet as soon as reasonably possible to grant needed relief. Justice delayed is, after all, justice denied.”
Memphis Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway passed legislation opening TBI investigations dealing with officer-involved shooting deaths once the case is finished.
Calling the matter an area of high interest in Memphis, Hardaway points out, “We have to be able to trust that the process works, and for that to happen, the process has to be transparent. The fair, equitable administration of justice is enhanced by the increased transparency created by this bipartisan legislation.”
Harris notes there is no reason for TBI reports to be kept out of the public eye.
“The public does not want this stuff done behind closed doors, and, increasingly, there is growing suspicion around some of the work of some law enforcement officials in certain contexts. Not all,” Harris says. “So, this is an easy way to beef up increased public interest in their work and to allay some fears.”
With only 25 of the 99 House members and five of the 33 Senate members, Democrats can’t pass every bill they sponsor.
Even though Tennessee is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Harold Love, both of Nashville, postponed a bill – once they saw it couldn’t pass – increasing the penalty for the illegal sale or manufacture of fentanyl and reducing penalties for some pot-related offenses.
Several other bills designed to lessen penalties for marijuana possession failed, as well, as did efforts by some Republicans to legalize medicinal marijuana.
“The opioid epidemic is a disaster for communities across the state, and it’s past time the Legislature does something about it,” Yarbro notes. “We can’t task force our way out of this problem, but we can make sure that there are serious consequences for selling a drug that truly destroys lives.”
A bill by Harris expanding criminal immunity for people calling 911 when they overdose passed House committees but failed in the Senate. Likewise, a measure by Rep. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville to reduce the size of drug-free school zones advanced from a House subcommittee but failed in a Senate committee.
“The way our drug-free school zone law is written, most places in urban and rural communities are located in a zone,” Gilmore says. “As a result, we are spending millions to incarcerate non-violent offenders arrested for doing a deal with an adult informant in the middle of the night with no kids around.”
Gilmore and Harris plan to bring it back in 2018.
Not only do Democrats run into problems as a super-minority when trying to reform criminal justice, the system is a money game.
For instance, Akbari’s expungement bill stalled in 2016 because it was expected to reduce government revenue by $140,000. As passed, it would leave $130 for district attorneys and a $50 fee for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Clerks are losing $10 per fee, and public defenders will lose money for expungement training.
A big budget surplus certainly helped the measure pass, and excess dollars could help Just City tackle pre-trial diversion expungements. But the underlying problem remains. Those charged and convicted are paying to keep the justice system intact, with their fines, fees and probation costs going into local and state pots to pay for salaries and operations.
Because government needs the money, it charges higher fees to make sure people stay in the system. This self-perpetuating madness is keeping people on probation and broke for life.
If Tennessee would make the bold move to let people escape these outrageous expenses, the state might not have to spend so much money keeping them in jail and prison. But just because people say they’re against big government doesn’t always mean they’ll follow through, especially when it comes people in the margins.
As Brenda A. says, though, “This is like a new kite. I can let my kite fly.”
The Legislature needs the guts to let the rest follow.
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.