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Misdemeanor fees, debts and bankruptcy

Minor offenses like speeding can result in hundreds of dollars in fines. Suspension or loss of license can leave an employee unable to work. While the government uses a penal system to punish individuals for crimes, many victims of the criminal justice system are financially unable to manage these financial setbacks. In many cases, they are unable to recover, even when they have a viable defense to their crime.

If you have accumulated fees or are overwhelmed by debts in Tennessee, you may have relief options thorugh bankruptcy.

For many, unpaid fines can result in thousands of dollars in fees. Not paying can lead to probation and jail time as well as additional fees when sent to a private probation facility. One woman was locked up for 40 days for an unpaid speeding ticket (originally $179) and charged $3,170 for her stay in a private probation facility. In cases such as these, it is arguably not the criminal justice system or the taxpayers who are benefitting, but the private corporations and for-profit businesses that are operating these facilities.

Defendants who are already poor or near poverty are unable to pay for a lawyer to seek justice and they are not given alternatives to fines and jail. Advocates for these defendants believe that there are serious constitutional issues at stake. Though public defenders must be made available, the right to counsel is rarely brought up for misdemeanors, and even in these cases, alleged offenders risk the possibility of jail time.

In addition to the constitutional issues, many of the offenders will be unable to recover from job loss and debts accumulated by fees and fines. Bankruptcy may be an option to reorganize finances, but judgments and government debts are not usually dismissed through bankruptcy.

Source: The New York Times, "Poor Land in Jail as Companies Add Huge Fees for Probation," Ethan Bronner, July 2, 2012.

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