UPDATE: A new proposal that would give local judges the power to offer community service - rather than issue stiff fines and fees - to thousands of indigent defendants is headed to the Governor's Office.

The state House on Thursday unanimously passed the new legislation. The state Senate had previously approved it.


Tennessee lawmakers are reviewing a bill that would allow Knox County judges to suspend the thousands of dollars in court expenses that mount up for chronic offenders who have no hope of paying.

10News addressed the problem last summer in its "Fines, Fees and a Flawed System" investigation of Knox County court operations.

The review found that a handful of homeless, indigent defendants were responsible for court debts of more than $750,000 - a figure that court officials readily admit the men could never pay.

As an alternative, under the proposed legislation, poor defendants in Knox County could work off the costs in a community service program.

State Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, introduced the bill in January in the Senate. State Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, has introduced the bill in the House.

The House version is on the chamber's regular calendar for Thursday.

The state Senate has already passed it 29-0, and it features an amendment that states the law would "cease to be effective July 1, 2018."

The measure specifically applies to Knox County.

WBIR's investigation found that the five men had been amassing unpaid fees and fines for decades. Most of the five continue to do so to this day. One defendant died 11 months ago, rendering his case moot.

Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond told 10News last summer he was pondering a way for poor defendants to work off fees rather than continue to carry high bills they cannot pay.

More: Fines, fees and a flawed system: In the Knox County General Sessions C...

Under the pending legislation, General Sessions and Criminal Court judges in Knox County could suspend court costs and litigation taxes for poor defendants.

It also authorizes Hammond "to implement a community service program in lieu of full payment of court costs and litigation taxes for indigent defendants."

According to the bill, "...the clerk may determine whether the defendant qualifies for the program based upon the guidelines adopted by the clerk. ...The clerk may remove the defendant from the program at any time due to failure to comply with the program guidelines."

State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey signed on as a Senate sponsor March 1.

Knox County defendants owe millions of dollars of unpaid court costs and fees, figures show. It's not unusual for one person to owe $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000. Many defendants who are charged with a crime are already poor and rely on a court-appointed attorney for representation.