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In the summer of 2018, Sean Murray dialed his local news channel after seeing a segment on voter restoration efforts in Tennessee. "I said, 'no way they are going to let a felon vote—and if so, you know what, I'm gonna fight for this.'"
Up to that point, the 57-year old had served two jail sentences, and hadn't been aware that he could have the opportunity to vote again. He also didn't know that committing to getting his voting rights restored would be a two-year journey.
He went to the Davidson County Clerk's office in Nashville and found out there that his first step would be getting an up-to-date ID, which required him to pay off the court fees and fines that had accrued from DUI charges back in the '80s and spiraled into about $2,000. The second step was to go to the Grundy County Clerk's office to find his original records so officials could signoff on his Certificate of Restoration.
But these records were 450 miles away in Altamont, a sparsely-populated town of about 1,000 people in the Cumberland Mountain range where he grew up. The office told Murray that his records were stored in a remote location that couldn't be accessed at that time. He kept asking.
After COVID-19 hit, he was told he would have to wait indefinitely.
See also: New Tennessee law surfaces the South's racist beginnings of felon voter disenfranchisement
It is estimated that 400,000 people in Tennessee are disenfranchised from voting due to felony convictions. Tennessee's ever-growing list of voter ID requirements are in line with nationwide trends that began in the 1950s and accelerated after the 2013 gutting of Shelby County v. Holder. Those regulations have barred hundreds of thousands of Tennessee citizens from voting, most of whom are young and Black.
Murray soon discovered that the burden of proof was on him to find the documents, pay the fines, and prove that he could vote. His savings from his $800 per month disability check were dwindling on photocopies, gas for driving, and a new phone. He started selling household items to pay rent. The 2018 elections passed, and by 2019 he began to doubt that he would be able to vote by 2020.
Court Fees and Fines: 'Penny-wise, Pound Foolish'
Seemingly unending encounters with Clerk's offices like Murray's are the common human cost of the state's ineffective system of handling voter restoration requests.
In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union conducted a survey of all election commission officials in the state, with questions about the voter restoration process. They found that most election officials had difficulty understanding and accurately applying the state's disenfranchisement policies. The study concluded that there was an "alarmingly high number of incorrect, inaccurate, or incomplete answers."
The burdensome amount of paperwork, criteria, and loopholes in the process means many felons don't bother. Tennessee Republican Sen. Steven Dickerson said "almost nobody actually does it."
Paying off court debt is usually one of the first—and most significant—barriers to the process of re-enfranchisement for those living in cycles of poverty. For others who are sick or disabled, the debts and interest can pile up.
A recent report from the Nashville mayor's office addressed the need to reduce or eliminate reliance on fine and fee revenue. The number of court fees and fines issued has increased statewide at least by 25 percent since the 1980s. Meanwhile, the number of people actually paying them is dropping. The Nashville report assessed that raising court fees and fines also can increase recidivism, making it, in their words, "penny-wise, yet pound-foolish."
Judge Rachel Bell, the presiding judge of Davidson County General Sessions Court, has watched the issue exacerbate during COVID-19. Bell volunteers at churches and public spaces to "bring the courtroom to the community" by helping an ever-growing line of former felons file an Affidavit of Indigency. This form, approved by a local clerk, can waive fees for those who prove they cannot pay them by assessing if they meet a list of requirements, like income.
Bell says that since COVID-19—and because of this year's election—she saw more people than ever come to her pop-up courtroom to clean their court fines records. In 2011, she said about 11,000 people came throughout the entire year, versus about 30,000 so far in 2020. Additionally, backlogs and delayed court date on some dockets have made shepherding the process, formerly an every six-week effort, into a steady volunteer job with the Clerk's office on most afternoons and Saturdays. The Davidson County Clerk's office has a position designated to the task, but other counties do not.
In a civil case, fees are collected at the beginning of the trial, but criminal case fees and fines are collected after, and are only paid by the state if the defendant is found not guilty. This leaves many who are convicted to postpone their due date by taking an oath of poverty or filing for indigency, delaying payment until after their sentence is served.
But the debt continues to accrue in prison. Initial fines can range from $50 to $3,000, but interest rates can vary from 5 to 40 percent when courts outsource debt collection to private companies. A 2017 survey by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations found most of the counties that partook with collection percentages of less than 50 percent.
These fees include other court services like paying probation officers, booking cells, drug testing, phone calls that can cost $15, or child support payments. In the current system, someone could end up owing thousands from a fingerprinting tax.
An employee from a nonprofit that helps returning citizens stay out of prison testified to the Tennessee Advisory Council that the average debt her nonprofit reported was as high as $9,000 to $12,000.
Many of the people Judge Bell serves are nonviolent offenders, surprised by the fees they have accrued over the years. She likens court fees and fines to credit card debt—they add up as the person is imprisoned without their knowledge, when they inherently cannot pay them.
The poorest and most vulnerable populations are often the most at stake. In Giles County, a 57-year-old cancer patient living on social security sacrificed her chronic pain medication to pay $426 in fines and fees—$25 each week in court costs and fines, $45 a month in supervision fees, and $45 for each drug test. Eventually, the county issued a warrant for her incomplete payments. She said that she was never told that she could have filed an indigency form.
She came to court with an oxygen tank and walking cane before being sentenced to 45 days in jail on two occasions, despite the 1983 Supreme Court Bearden v. Georgia ruling, which dictates that counties cannot imprison court fine debtors, even if they determine that they could have "willfully" paid off their sum.
In another case, a woman tried to reinstate her license to take care of her three children and disabled grandmother but was told multiple times she had to pay off her fees and fines first. She said that for years, no one told her she could drive without an updated ID.
15 Out of 95 Counties
Even as the number of fees collected by the 95 counties of Tennessee continues to rise, there is little information on how the data around those debts is collected and stored, and therefore little is known about the relationship between increasing fines and collection rates.
Court fees and fines data collection for both local and state governments in Tennessee depends on the voluntary annual reporting from individual county clerks offices. A lack of reporting in the state prompted the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, a state and local government body that looks into policy issues to find solutions, to probe the situation in 2017—about a decade after the Tennessee Fiscal Review Committee had last requested information on criminal case collections to better understand how they are collected.
The Committee asked all 95 counties to report on their collections. Only 15 responded, with several clerks saying they were unable to gather the requested collections information.
The average county offsets 7 percent of the costs of public safety with fees and fines. As law allows in both civil and criminal cases, court clerks there have tried to get people to pay by sending notices and reminder letters to debtors, and payment plans—with mixed success. This lack of time and resources to enforce the rules has led many counties to hand over the task to private collection companies.
Clerks have found voter ID laws as an effective tool for debt collection. In its 2009 handbook on the process of Collecting Fines and Fees in State Courts, the National Center for State Courts stated that "in some jurisdictions, the threat of a driver's license suspension is an effective way to encourage fine payment."
But while the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts staff said collections have increased because of ID revocations, they estimate over 75 percent of persons charged with a criminal offense in Tennessee trial courts meet the criteria to be indigent and therefore have their debts dropped. These same people often have a hard time finding employment while on probation or after being released from jail.
A new proposal in the Republican supermajority state legislature asks to cap property tax increases without any vote from local governments, leaving mayors concerned about how they will collect fees elsewhere. This is happening right as Tennessee's reliance on court fees and fines remains steadily on the rise.
Many local offices are struggling to balance budgets without new court fees and fines.
New Solutions for an Old Problem
Today, Grundy has no hospital, no dentist, and no major retailers. County Mayor Michael Brady in 2019 asked for the state to help: "livability," he said, is a major concern. He said that this and Grundy's small budget drove retailers elsewhere.
Livability has been a struggle in the former saltpeter mining area, whose natural resources began depleting since the Civil War, both from gunpowder manufacturing and sporadic arsons that began to swallow the county.
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, arsons and dynamite blasts damaged water tanks in parts of the county affecting hundreds. In 1990, the 105-year-old Grundy County Courthouse was burned down. Authorities believe two brothers started the fire to destroy their criminal records. They ended up destroying an unknown amount of others, too.
The Grundy County Clerk's office confirmed that they now have two remote storage facilities off-site that are "quite a ways" from their office and don't have set dates to go there to collect records. That's where Murray's records sat for years.
Because of inconsistencies in his digital records and the inability to produce the hard copies from those remote sites, the clerks in Grundy County would not sign his Certificate of Restoration.
He enlisted the help of a second-year law school student at Vanderbilt, Katherine Anne Denney, who volunteered her time with the Campaign Legal Center's national "Restore Your Vote" program. Denney requested Murray's original hard copies, too. But "getting the records was a doozy," Denny said.
In January 2020, the office realized Murray's records were housed in the more remote of the two sites, making it more challenging to find the time to send someone from their small staff. Once COVID-19 lockdowns came, they said they were not going to go out until restrictions were lifted.
She started the process in October 2019, and it wasn't resolved until November of this year.
Blaire Bowie is the legal counsel and manager for Campaign Legal Center's Restore Your Vote program and has been sending letters to local clerks' offices in response to mismanagement and with inquiries to retrain Clerks on voter restoration efforts.
See also: North Carolina law lands poor people in debtors jails, even though judges could set them free
Tennessee's elections division has not issued statewide guidance on voter restoration administration. Bowie said she can't go to all counties to follow-up on local practices—but that the state should be doing that job, anyway.
One of the Commission's recommendations in 2017 was an annual county-by-county, statewide report, so they could better track and interpret what is and isn't working. They noted Louisiana as a model, where since 2017 offices have taken efforts to centralize their disparate collections apparatus after it was found that some revenue was used for personal perks for judges, including two Ford Expeditions, a leather upholstery upgrade for a take-home vehicle, and a full-time private chef.
Earlier this year, Louisiana passed House bill 48 to improve reporting requirements between The Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Department of State. Additionally, House Bill 168—passed in 2017—required sponsors to submit signed documentation to a state Supreme Court committee to determine if a fine is "reasonably related" to their needs. One district court even suspended court fees and fines collection due to COVID-19.
The final report adds language that the Tennessee committee could look at the existing statewide fees and taxes and earmarks scattered throughout other statutes. Reporting from each county is set to begin by the end of 2020, so the results are yet to come. In the meantime, some advocates are looking toward easier solutions, like putting the decisions in the people's hands.
In Judge Bell's pop-up court, activist Robert Sherrill said he used to look to Florida for the solution after they passed Amendment 4, a statewide ballot initiative that gained bipartisan support and would allow for voter restoration for ex-felons, which previously could only be done so through pardons.
But Florida's model is looking less appealing to organizers today. In September 2019, a federal appeals court eventually walked that amendment back, ruling that hundreds of thousands of Florida felons who completed their sentences could not vote unless they pay fees and fines owed to the state. This left many former felons scrambling to pay off their debts before the 2020 elections, to the extent that billionaires like Michael Bloomberg stepped in to help pay off some of their funds, believing ex-felons are more likely to vote Democrat.
Florida Judge Robert Hinkle voted against limiting the scope of Amendment 4, saying the onus should not lie on the individual, but on the state. He suggested that if the government can't tell the felon how much they owe or how the state came up with that amount, they should not be able to stop anyone from registering to vote.
The Florida office of Fees and Fines Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates and researches solutions on eliminating unfair fees in the justice system, told Scalawag that similar to Tennessee, Florida doesn't have a state income tax, leaving clerks to hunt down and collect the fees and fines with low resources and lower response rates. Also similar to Tennessee, Florida has 67 counties with no centralized reporting system for their collections. During the hearings on Amendment 4, it was found that many clerks did not digitize their records—one clerk kept records in shoe boxes.
Florida's Hillsborough County, like Davidson, has been doing "rocket dockets" to help people remove their fines—a speedy, albeit temporary fix.
A couple Republican congressmen in Tennessee have sponsored bills to eliminate court fees and fines, lending the issue some bipartisan support. Even if Tennessee wanted to get a ballot initiative on the docket, it would rely heavily on the support of those politicians; unlike Florida, Tennessee ballot initiatives must be voted on by the state legislature before the public can weigh in.
'Stop the Runaround'
Murray eventually cast his ballot this year. He got his registration cards in his mailbox one day before early voting was available, and stood in line at his local library for about two hours.
He said after his wife died, he has been spending his alone time during the pandemic playing guitar, doing woodwork, watching Netflix, and "anything to occupy my mind, because I know where my past took me."
During his early life in Grundy County, Murray raced through adulthood in foster homes after his mother took his father's life after years of abuse. He regularly goes to his mother's grave in Nashville by the women's prison where his mother once lived.
"Everything I do to walk the line straight is for her." A woodworker, he built the cross on her grave. "The sun comes up, and the sun goes down. You can't live in the past," he said.
He now reflects on how that led him into a path of crime. After the first time he left jail in the '90s, got married and was able to stay out of prison while working 16 hour days of manual labor. While he says it has been a considerable accomplishment for him to "live a normal life again," he has been fighting "tooth and nail" since he decided to get his rights back.
"I'm still getting used to society, even though it's been six years now. It's still kind of strange for me out here."
Both nonprofit and government programs have helped him stay out of jail, thanks to his first big break when a local church helped him get out of the "roach motel" where he was living and into Section 8 housing. After two years spending his savings to ride bicycles to the Clerk's office and borrowing his friend's car, he got his license. It wasn't until a judge found out that he was below the qualifying poverty level to be declared indigent and could drive again.
He hopes that other formerly incarcerated people in his shoes should get this same assistance—without all of the hurdles.
"What they need is assistance and help. We don't get it; we get the run-around. Go here, go there. We don't have nobody."
When asked about whether getting his voting rights back was worth all the hassle, he said, "I'm a tax-paying citizen now, and I feel good about myself. You know what—now, I want my jury rights back."
This story is part of a collaborative project with The GroundTruth Project on voting rights in America presented with support from the Jesse and Betsy Fink Charitable Fund, Solutions Journalism Network and MacArthur Foundation.