Josh Spickler

Josh Spickler, a former Shelby County public defender, is the executive director of Just City, a Memphis-based advocacy group that works on criminal-justice issues.

Lee sends promising signal by dropping fee to clear criminal records

By Published: May 16, 2019 6:21 PM CT

Bill Lee spoke frequently on the campaign trail about how we need to rethink the ways we treat people with criminal records. After he was elected governor, he put his words into action with some incremental but meaningful reforms this past legislative session – one being the complete elimination of the fee to clear the records on some criminal convictions.

For years, Tennesseans who had earned a second chance not only had to run the narrow gauntlet of expungement eligibility, they also had to come up with a hefty $450 fee. While the state’s portion of this fee had been reduced to $180 over the last few years, Gov. Lee and the leadership of the General Assembly finished the job this year. After July 1, only a $100 local fee will stand between thousands of Tennesseans and a clean slate.

<strong>Josh Spickler</strong>

Josh Spickler

Over the last several years, Just City has met and worked with hundreds of people who have paid their debts to society and are eager to get back to work and achieve the kind of stability that will keep them from re-offending. Shackling these individuals with onerous fees and obstacles to productivity holds us all back. An overwhelming number of people with minor criminal offenses in their past are ready to move on; they just need a little help. Just City's clients report higher wages, more stable hours and healthier families because they were able to get better jobs after expungement.

Despite our progress, we still have a lot of work to do up and down the criminal justice reform spectrum. Tennessee’s prison population is still growing, and Gov. Lee inherited a correction system that claims more than $1 billion of our state budget. Tennessee’s 2018 prison population of 30,128 men and women is the highest in our state’s history.

That’s not an error. Tennessee’s prison population is as high as it’s ever been.

The good news is that criminal justice reform is not a partisan issue. Governors from both parties have found ways to safely and substantially reduce incarcerated populations over the last few years. In fact, one of our neighboring states is the most recent to achieve a double-digit percentage decrease in its prison population. Since 2014, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has led the state to an 11% reduction, saving taxpayers $46 million per year. That’s real money that can go toward treatment and training instead of costly facilities and staff.

People make mistakes. And yes, some people make bad mistakes that are damaging and rightly deserve correction, but too many of their sentences are unnecessarily long and costly. That’s to say nothing of the lasting consequences of criminal legal system involvement, which locks people out of the workforce and costs us even more. We can safely reduce these costs and reap savings that can then be reinvested.

Quick and simple reforms like elimination of the expungement fee send a strong signal that Gov. Lee wants to find a smarter, safer and more humane way forward for criminal justice in Tennessee. Let’s build on these first steps and create a criminal justice system that makes better use of public safety budgets and allows people to get back to work for their own futures. 


Expungement Bill Lee Just City

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