Knox County Criminal Court Clerk’s office launches pilot community service program for court fees

Knox County courtroom

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – The Knox County Criminal Court Clerk’s office announced a new program Monday, the first of its kind in Tennessee.

The community service program will start October 3 and is for Knox County residents that are considered indigent. The new system allow those who owe the clerk’s office money, but can’t pay it to do community service instead of just having the fee waived. In 2015, Knox County Clerk’s Office said over $1,270,000 in court costs were waived because of indigence.

“As we were looking at our collection process, one of the things we found was that a number of people were having their costs waived because of indecency,” said Hammond. “Because the courts were so busy, there was not a mechanism to actually determine indecency and there was not a mechanism in the state law for community service.

Representative Dr. Richard Briggs and Representative Bill Dunn were able to push a new law, just to allow Knox County to do the program. The law sunsets in two years.

“We’re going to try this and see how it works. If it works, we’re going to go back to the legislature in two years and ask them to extend the program,” said Hammond. “Our job now is to make sure that it does work, so when we go back to the legislature we can say we’ve got a program that works in Knox County and people are very pleased with the fact that people are able to satisfy their debts and not just have them waived arbitrarily.”

Hammond said the new program is voluntary and was modeled on successful programs in states like California, Texas and Ohio. He said those that would like to be considered for the program will have to go to the clerk’s office and fill out an application. The clerk’s office will then review the application and if they are eligible assign them to one of three partners.

“For people that are claiming indigence, I think it’s going to give them a chance to pay what they owe, instead of just having all of the costs waived,” said Hammond. “Again, these are people who are able bodied. There may be instance where there may be some indigence and the costs will need to be waived because of that, but if they able bodied and want to work off the opportunity to pay those, now we have a mechanism for it.”

Knox County Litter Program, Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries and Lending Angels, a program that makes ramps for disabled people, are partnering with the clerk’s office to provide community service opportunities. Those participating will have a certain amount of time to complete the public service requirement and the number of hours they will have to complete will be based on the number of dollars owed.

“We are really so happy to have a community partner that will go out and have some organization to have these ramps built,” said Vanesia Cohan with Lending Angels. “We’re hoping to help a whole lot more people with this program.”

Hammond said certain offense will not be eligible for the program, such as animal abuse, elder abuse and sexual offenses. Also, items like restitution to victims do not qualify for the program. He said the program is designed to help low income Knox County residents pay fees for minor crimes and misdemeanor crimes.

“No one is so poor, that they don’t have something to contribute,” said Burt Rosen with Knox Area Rescue Ministries. “We’re really excited about this partnership with Knox County for a couple of different reasons. We’re home to close to 400 men, women and children every single night and what we know is that a large portion of those we serve have had brushes with the law. Often times, where court costs would be assigned and the likelihood is that they would not be able to pay.”

Rosen said the program is not only good for Knox County tax payers, but allows the person to feel like a contributing member of the community by helping someone out.

“It’s a pilot project, so there may be some tweaking we may need to do along with way, but as it stands now October the 3rd will be our kick-off date and we’ll see it how it goes,” said Hammond. “Hopefully we’ll be able to have people come in and participate in the program and repay their debt to society and feel good about it.”

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