(WBIR - KNOXVILLE) - Mindful of the defendants in the Knox County General Sessions Court system who have accrued years of costs and fees they cannot possibly pay, Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond is preparing a plan.
He said he wants to identify the people who have no hope of paying what they owe, such as the handful of homeless, indigent defendants 10News reported Monday in its investigative series "Fines, Fees and a Flawed System. " The men collectively owe more than $750,000.
Hammond also wants to single out those who have simply fallen behind or neglected what they owe and really can pay at least something. And the clerk wants to offer possible ways a defendant could work off his bill, perhaps some kind of community service.
It's all still in the "idea" stage, said Hammond, a former county commissioner who took office in September, and he first needs to come up with a detailed, specific proposal to present to Knox County General Sessions Court judges.
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.
The five men profiled by 10News on Monday owe more, judges, clerks and lawyers concede, than they could ever pay. One defendant, Anthony Joe Mason, died in April, and last week a General Sessions Court judge abated his costs in a case.
"We'll go to the judges and say, We're not going to collect this. Our recommendation to you is that we forgive this debt. Let's not have it on our books. It's kinda like a bad debt in business," Hammond said.
He's also is in the process of looking for a new collection agency that can help with collections and hopes to have that firm in place in November.
Hammond oversees clerical operations for the General Sessions, Criminal and Fourth Circuit courts.
All told there's about $159 million on the books waiting to be collected in those courts, the vast amount in General Sessions and Criminal courts.
Hammond said he would be happy if he could bring in a fraction of that - $15 million or $20 million.
Judges Chuck Cerny and Tony Stansberry, who have both served on the bench in Knox County General Sessions Court since the 1990s, said they look forward to hearing what Hammond has to say.
Cerny said judges know that some of the people, chronic substance abusers, for example, who are repeatedly arrested are in no condition to pay their costs.
"These kinds of problems do inconvenience and cost society quite a bit," Cerny said. "Will we ever have a hope that people of that kind will be able to pay their court costs? No, society will have to bear the costs."
There are others, however, who can pay their costs, he said. And there may be a way to design a program whereby some defendants who pose no threat to society could work off some of their costs, he said.
"The details of that would have to be worked out, and it's not as easy as it sounds," Cerny said.
Stansberry said he was concerned judges lacked legal authority to compel defendants to work off any kind of debt. He acknowledged judges have begun waiving costs in some cases where it's clear the defendant has no money to pay.
That's a short-term solution, he said. There likely are other short-term fixes that can be put in place. But there's a bigger problem that has to be addressed: those who are chronically addicted to substances and those who are mentally ill, he said.
"These people need treatment," Stansberry said. "They don't need to be in the jail system."
'NICKEL AND DIME' CRIMES
When the public thinks of courtrooms and the judicial system, they tend to focus on high-profile cases: murders, rapes, corruption. The kind of thing that leads the TV news and grabs newspaper headlines.
That's actually a very, very small portion of what happens in the judicial system. Most of what judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys deal with involves low-level crimes such as public intoxication, minor drug possession, disorderly conduct, assaults, auto and home burglaries, theft of $500 or less.
In Knox County, according to figures prepared by Hammond's office, public intoxication charges dwarf everything.
In 2014, the Clerk's Office "disposed of" or resolved some 32,000 cases at the General Sessions Court level, which is where most cases first enter the system and where most are resolved.
Of that number, 2,936 were for public intoxication - someone police allege was drunk or high while out in public. The next highest case amount - 1,916 - was simple possession/casual exchange of a drug.
In descending order the next three case amounts: theft of property less than $500, 1,547; possession of drug paraphernalia, 1,511; and driving while privilege suspended, 1,375.
Public intoxication cases by themselves represented more than 9 percent of everything that got resolved in the General Sessions Court system in 2014, figures show.
Each public intoxication case costs a couple to several hundreds dollars to resolve. Knox County District Public Defender Mark Stephens jokes that lawyers never really know and cannot tell a client what their costs and fees are going to be until the case actually is resolved.
Some repeat offenders, such as Michael Ray Pierce, 58, a homeless Knoxville man who had 57 public intoxication charges in 2014, very quickly accrue thousands of dollars in fees and fines that will never get paid back.
Defense attorneys think it's time to rethink the way some low-level crimes are handled in the system.
"I'd like to focus on why we believe our system of justice has to be profitable," said Stephens, who has led the District Public Defender's Office more than 20 years. "If we would restrict the number of offenses or the number of charges that are issued in a jurisdiction, if we would decriminalize - and we can decriminalize - some of these offenses..."
There are "nickel and dime" offenses, such as driving on a suspended license, that cost defendants hundreds of dollars for each charge.
"You can argue it shouldn't even be criminal to begin with," Stephens said.
Court costs assessed after a defendant is convicted could be and should be made more "realistic," said defense attorney Mike Whalen. Knox County's judicial system operates under the fallacy that money collected from court costs can fund its operations. It can't, he said.
"A PI (public intoxication) shouldn't cost you a couple hundred bucks," he said.
Randy Nichols, former longtime Knox County district attorney general, however, cautions that society can't just throw out some laws because defendants clutter up a docket.
"What are you going to do when they're pissing in the doorway? When they get aggressive on the mall? What are you going to do?
"We've got to have some way to deal with them."
SAFETY CENTER DISCUSSIONS
One option that's been under discussion for several years is a safety center where some defendants, chronic substance abusers and the mentally ill could be shifted for intensive treatment. Many of the people who get arrested the most are alcoholics, drug abusers, people who huff paint routinely just to get high.
Nichols, the former district attorney, and Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones have led discussions about the center. Questions about funding, for one, have slowed progress.
Nichols, now special counsel to Jones, said Monday he remains optimistic. Ever frank, he also expresses frustration over the complexity of the issue.
"We think we've got a place where we can put (the center. I think think we can staff it. We think the capital money is there. The major question, and it's something the mayor in particular asked, is, Well, OK, so you've got them stabilized for 8-10 days. What happens next? And that's a great question."
Charme Allen, who succeeded Nichols in September, likes the idea of a safety center. But she agrees with Nichols that such a facility offers only a short-term solution for chronic substance abusers or those with mental health problems.
"Under the current ideas that we have for the safety center what we would do is divert those people for a three-day period. and we would have an assessment done to either determine whether they have a substance abuse problem or a mental health problem. At the end of that three days, the question is what happens to them?" she said.
No one can be cured of a raging alcohol problem in three days. No mental health problems can be addressed efficiently in just three days.
"We need a long-term plan to deal with them," Allen said. "They are now a revolving door-type of person coming through our jail. So we need a different place, but we need to solve the revolving-door problem. We don't need to make a safety center where we just have a different place we have the revolving door."
Stansberry said it's too late to help someone once they've entered the criminal justice system.
"We need more mental health resources on the front end to give them case workers, to give them housing and treatment. That would be a much better way to handle the system, rather than trying to attack it on the back end when they're in jail and coming before the court," he said.
To truly address the problem, Nichols said, a number of things will have to change. Tennessee law would need to change to allow family members and guardians leverage to force someone by court order into treatment, he said.
Treatment also will need to be intensive and focused, he said. Housing for such people should also be considered. Government will have to commit to funding.
"It's a very difficult problem, but we're going broke just chasing our tails of incarcerating this ilk of person," he said. "It's about to drive me crazy. It's just a very, very difficult problem."