Excessive filing fees frustrate new expungement schemes

How much is a clean slate worth?  That’s the question many people with criminal records are asking in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee, where the cost of filing for expungement is (or will soon be) between $450 and $550.  To put that into perspective:  In Kentucky, the $500 fee required to expunge an eligible felony conviction under a new law that takes effect in July will equal nearly half of the monthly wages of a full-time worker earning the state’s $7.25 minimum wage.  The relative cost will be even higher for the many people who have difficulty securing steady full-time employment because of their criminal record.  The high filing fee puts relief effectively out of reach for most of those it was intended to benefit,  even if they elect to file without retaining a lawyer.

There is a major disconnect between these exorbitant fees and the policy rationale that has led many states to create or expand expungement opportunities in recent years.  Expungement improves the employment prospects of people with criminal records, allowing them to achieve a degree of economic stability that in turn discourages further criminal behavior.  People held back from economic stability by their criminal records are the people that are likely to benefit most from expungement, and the social advantages of expungement are most keenly experienced among this population.  But these are the very people least likely to be able to afford to pay high application fees.

According to an article by Maura Ewing published by the Marshall Project earlier this week that takes a closer look at the issue, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee are outliers among states that allow for expungement in charging such high fees:

Many states charge $150 or less to apply for expungement … and some states offer a waiver if the applicant is too poor to pay.

In the 17 states that allow for expungement of low-level felonies, “the application fee is generally in line with standard court fees.”

So why are the application fees in those three states so high, and where does that money go?  Ewing found that while Louisiana’s fees were considered necessary to cover the costs of an inefficient and underfunded justice system, the fees in Kentucky and Tennessee were driven solely by the prospect of generating general revenue.  From the article:

In Tennessee and Kentucky, bloated prices have little to do with processing the application, but rather the state revenue they were designed to produce. Fifty-five percent of the cash collected in Tennessee goes into the state’s general fund. In Kentucky, it will be a full 90 percent.

The prospect of revenue is exactly why Tennessee lawmakers were persuaded to pass felony expungement legislation in 2012, said State Representative Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat. At the time, the official estimate was that the law would raise $7 million for the state annually.

But it didn’t turn out that way.  Apparently the Tennessee legislature failed to consider that the state’s $450 fee would be an insurmountable obstacle for many otherwise eligible petitioners:

In reality, it has generated only about $130,000 each year according to an analysis by a criminal justice nonprofit, Just City. The lack of income is tied to the fact that few would-be applicants can afford to apply, Akbari said.

Those disparities are now causing some Tennessee lawmakers to reconsider the high fees; but others seem unwilling to act if lowering the fee means even a modest decrease in the state’s revenue stream.

The relatively small revenue stream provided by the expungement fee has complicated legislative reform. A recent bill, sponsored by Akbari, would have lowered it by $100. It had wide bipartisan support, but never made it to the floor because it would have reduced overall income by $88,000.

Akbari is undeterred and plans to reintroduce it next year. The $100 reduction is a baby step, she said. Eventually she would like the fee to reflect only the cost of processing the application.

As it stands, the costs are so prohibitive in Tennessee that advocates have resorted to creating private funds to pay the fees on the behalf of petitioners who cannot afford them.

Public awareness of the issue is gaining momentum in Tennessee. At a fundraising event in February, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland raised $55,000 in private donations to cover the cost of expungement for indigent applicants. A similar fund run by Just City … has underwritten 70 applicants since its launch three years ago — a modest gain, said Josh Spickler, the Just City executive director.

In its reporting on the enactment of Kentucky’s new expungement law, the AP noted that it will give over 60,000 people with felony records a chance at a clean slate.  But if Tennessee is any indication, the $500 application fee will make expungement a practical impossibility for those who could benefit from it the most.  And, since a vast majority of the fees will go directly into the state’s general fund, for which there are many strong defenders, it could be many years before the legislature acts to reconcile the law’s substantive policy goals and its deterrent fee stucture.

Joshua Gaines

Josh is a North Carolina-based attorney and the CCRC's Deputy Director. After graduating from American University in 2012, he worked on the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC), and various other projects dealing with collateral consequences, rights restoration, and reentry.

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