Shelby Co. DA won’t block court fee waivers for low-income people, opens door to expungements

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy answers a question during a press conference announcing that no criminal charges charges will be filed against the Memphis Police Department officers involved in the fatal shooting of Jaylin McKenzie in Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday, September 26, 2023.

The Shelby County District Attorney’s Office will no longer oppose requests to waive court fines and fees for low-income defendants, District Attorney Steve Mulroy said Tuesday.

The policy change follows a year of collaboration with Just City, a nonprofit criminal justice reform group, along with both criminal and general sessions court judges that Mulroy hopes will end the “perverse cycles of debt and poverty” that defendants experience when trying to have their records expunged or move beyond a past offense.

“Fines and fees have a disproportionate impact in our criminal justice system on low-income people, and on minority communities, further exacerbating the already existing racial and wealth inequalities we have in the criminal justice system,” Mulroy said. “More generally, they often lead to perverse cycles of debt and poverty that can dog defendants for years after the case is otherwise resolved.”

The majority of these fines and fees are not collected, though Mulroy could not say exactly how often defendants are unable to pay them. Without paying those fees, people cannot file to have their records expunged. The fees often result in the inability to get a job, have a driver’s license, vote and sometimes result in additional criminal charges.

“They make future contact with the criminal justice system more likely because they get behind on fines and fees and then can be in trouble for that,” he said. “That also makes them less able to maintain gainful employment. None of this makes us safer.”

Josh Spickler, the executive director for Just City, said his organization has submitted public records requests to the state to find out exactly how much money is owed in fines and fees, but said “they don’t really know” how much of that money is outstanding.

Josh Spickler with Just City speaks at a press conference of local organizers, elected officials, attorneys and activists calling for a Department of Justice pattern-or-practice investigation into the Memphis Police Department at the NAACP Memphis Branch on Friday, February 17, 2023.

Some fees are as low as $50, which still may be unaffordable to some Memphians, to upwards of thousands of dollars.

“The largest disqualifying factor for people who come to us for help [with expungements] is that they owe court debt,” Spickler said. “Maybe $50, it may be $5,000, but unless it’s paid or waived, they cannot get that criminal history sealed, and they must go to a job interview, they must go to an apartment complex and talk about that. We believe the policy of not opposing fee waivers will get more people back into the workforce, it’ll get more people into stable housing.”

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Mulroy also said waiving those fees will have a “minimal” fiscal impact since most of them are “uncollectible debts.” The money that is paid, however, splits between staying in Shelby County and going to the state.

Waiving court fees is not an uncommon practice, with Spickler saying that over 2,200 fines and fees were waived by Shelby County General Sessions Court from August last year to this past August. The majority of these waivers are granted to people charged with non-violent and low-level offenses, Mulroy said.

Lucas Finton is a criminal justice reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at Lucas.Finton@commercialappeal.com and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.

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