They know what they don’t know.
But without a lot of input from a decentralized, underfunded system, the researchers looking at Tennessee’s criminal justice fines and fees won’t be able to get a full picture of what’s going on statewide.
A new report from the Sycamore Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy research organization based in Nashville, shows how difficult it is to find data on who is being fined for what, and for how much.
“These things just built up over time to a pretty complicated web that is admittedly difficult to really wrap your head around,” policy director Mandy Pellegrin told The Tennessean. “And so that’s why we we thought it would be a good place for us to kind of lift the veil.
“We certainly wish we could have lifted the veil a little higher.”
This month’s report is the fourth in a series digging into the financial obligations levied against criminal defendants in Tennessee.
Previous reports explored defining fines, fees and other obligations as well as tracking down where they sit in state law, who they effect, what funds go to governments or victims after collection and more. Researches also looked at how meaningful fines and fees are as a revenue stream for local governments and proposed possible policy options around the subject.
But answers are still lacking.
“Even after all this research that we’ve done, we still don’t have a great grasp on what’s going on across Tennessee, because there’s not good data,” Sycamore’s director of external affairs Brian Straessle said.
Since 2005, Tennessee has added at least 50 new fees and fines to state law, the report notes.
Tennessee does not centralize its courts or their financial data, researchers found. The data they were able to analyze came from the state Comptroller’s Office, but doesn’t include the biggest counties in the state, including Nashville.
Recent investigations into Davidson County’s fines and fees scheme have prompted calls for local change.
“It matters where you get charged for the crime, what you’re going to get charged with financially, we know that,” Straessle said. “But what we don’t know is why that is.”
So many factors could be at play: the judge, prosecutors or the district attorney, law enforcement making decisions, the type of crime.
“A lot of these smaller counties, you’re not going to have a robust operation in the court clerk’s office,” Pellegrin said. “If you’re going to set clear standards for what the court systems need to be reporting, you know, there they may also need more resources in order to really be able to do it well.”
Although the researchers don’t lobby for any particular response, the report could be a call to action for policymakers to start the process of centralizing this type of data.
“There haven’t been many people who have wanted to jump out in front of parade, I guess,” Straessle said. “But I think that you could see some fairly widespread agreement that yeah, this sounds like a pretty good idea. There’s obviously always going to be sort of disagreements in the margins, and the details.”
The full report can be read at the Sycamore Institute’s website.