Terence Wesley has a degree in psychology from the University of Memphis. He takes his diploma with him everywhere — talking to kids on street corners about the value of education, volunteering as a mentor and, most importantly, applying for jobs. But this royal blue-bound testament to his intellect and work ethic does little to earn him consideration as a social worker. That’s because Wesley attempted to snatch a purse one month after his 18th birthday. He’s 36-years old now and claims he’s stayed out of trouble since. He’s raising three kids and working temp jobs to support his family and pay back student loans.
“I have a four-year college degree in my hand, but they don’t see that. They see a convicted felon.”
As Wesley sees it, a decent job is not the only thing out of reach to those who have served time for felonies.
“You’re on the outer fringes of society. You are marginalized. You are not part of society. You’re being taxed. But you are not being represented, because you can’t vote. You work, but you can’t be a part of society. You want to affect change, but you can’t run for public office,” says Wesley. “Some of these guys just want to cut hair. You can’t cut hair. You want to sell a house? You can’t sell a house, you can’t get a real estate license. The only thing you can do is menial work. Drudgery. So you are relegated to substandard living.”
That’s why the Tennessee Department of Corrections held its first Resource and Information Fair to help people transition from prison to the community. The event was in cooperation with the City of Memphis, Shelby County and federal government agencies. It marked the largest effort of its kind held in Tennessee and groups from across the state were at the fair to model the event for their cities. The Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender was one of 60 organizations offering services at the fair.
Event organizer April Buckner with the Tennessee Department of Correction believes the high turnout demonstrates this is a need our city and state must address.
“Whether we like it or not, these people are coming out on parole. They are going to come out from the courts. They are going to come out from the prison, ” says Buckner. “We can either assist them to make sure they get the resources they need so they become law-abiding, productive citizens, or we can sit here and do nothing. Then the only thing they have to go back to is the life they are trying to get away from.”
“Pay them off. Pay them off. I’m tired of you going to jail.”
That’s what the man we’ll call “Jim” says his mom begged him to do. Just pay the government off.
But try paying a $72,000 bill when you can’t get a decent job, because you don’t have a driver’s license. And you can’t get your driver’s license back, because you can’t pay off the bill.
Jim lost his driver’s license in the late 90’s. While he knows he shouldn’t drive without a license, it’s not easy to get work in this town by bus. It’s not easy to get to a lot of places. So he drove. And he kept getting pulled over, even spending time in jail for driving without a license. He was last sentenced to 16-months incarceration for driving on a revoked license. After release, he received a bill for $72,000.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to pay that. That’s a house!’,” says Jim. “But it went on for four years. I was not able to get a job, because every job I applied for in my field, you need a driver’s license. And then I start to be arrested again because of no driver’s license. So I decided to do what I had to do … and start paying.”
Jim says he’s a licensed diesel mechanic — that’s a field with jobs that pay well. But diesel mechanics need driver’s licenses. So he started repairing cars on his own to pay down that debt. Jim says when he made a few hundred dollars, he would send half to the county. He’s managed to pay $60,000 in old court costs and jail fees. But he’s been scraping by, living on the bare minimum for years now. And he’s not sure how much longer he can take the burden of massive debt and the fear of imprisonment.
Jim says, if he can get the remaining $8,000 in old fees waived, he can get his license reinstated. For a person like Jim, with the promise of a good job in the near future, removal of those old fees can mean a different life.
“I won’t feel threatened. I won’t feel discouraged. Plus, I will not feel frightened to pull over and go somewhere and be pulled over by police and be arrested because I have no driver’s license. Without that debt, I can go somewhere. I can do things.”
Removing Barriers to Productivity
Clearly, not every person at the re-entry fair had a story like Terence or Jim. But since the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office held the first Street Court in July of 2012, our volunteers have encountered dozens of people who just need that second chance — a job opportunity, a drivers license or debt forgiveness — to become productive citizens in our community.
This past Street Court, in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Correction, resulted in old court cost waivers for more than 150 people who have been in contact with the justice system. In little more than one year, the Shelby County Public Defender’s ‘Street Court,’ in partnership with General Sessions court and clerk’s office, has obtained debt forgiveness for nearly 500 people who are unable to pay their fines.
“This is money the justice system would likely never see,” says Street Court organizer, Chris Martin. “These are thousands of dollars in fines that someone living on the street or struggling to find a job will never be able to pay. Plus, as taxpayers, we use resources to try and collect it. Street Court allows us, in a few days, to clear the books of these old debts and give people the opportunity to make a better life. It makes fiscal sense for our community and relieves a burden on the criminal justice system. Plus, we can help a person help himself. It just makes sense.”
Growing Street Court Partnerships
There is no better signal that a need is being served than when the list of partnerships grows. Street Court began just last year as a component of Project Homeless Connect, the bi-annual, one-day blitz of services for people experiencing homelessness in Memphis. Since then, the organizers of Street Court have been invited to partner with the University of Memphis School of Law for its annual Alternative Spring Break and, most recently, with the Tennessee Department of Correction’s re-entry fair.
Street Court has also grown its circle of volunteers. The first Street Court was staffed primarily with students from the University of Memphis Law School and lawyers from the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, Memphis Area Legal Services and private attorneys with the Memphis Bar Association and the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Since then, volunteers have joined from the University of Memphis main campus and most recently, the Shelby County Tennessee Alumnea Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
“In our community there are a lot of people who do not have jobs, a lot of people who need help,” says Danielle Dodson, a criminal justice major at the University of Memphis and Street Court volunteer. “At Street Court, I’ve seen something I haven’t seen. I’ve actually gotten to see people getting help. People who have a hard time getting jobs, getting help. And, actually, having the opportunity to get all of their fines cleared.”
Since each Street Court is limited by the logistics of the court system, there are always lines of people who cannot be served. Not because they don’t deserve the chance, but because the system is not yet ready to handle the demand. So at the end of each Street Court, there is always the question — when will the next one be held? After each Street Court, our office fields phone calls from people desperate for the next opportunity to stand in line for hours and sometimes over multiple days … so that they might, possibly, get a second chance.
But every day in our community, more fines accumulate. Some necessary. Some not. These Street Courts are a small, temporarily release valve — they ease just a little bit of the pressure on the system and the people caught in it. But they do not fix the problem.
It’s the case with court costs. It’s also the case with re-entry in general. These are big issues that small, heroic efforts can ease. But they need big legislative and policy solutions.
“I’ve seen the response with Street Court, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with the office, so this is a need,” say Buckner with the Tennessee Department of Corrections. “So hopefully, this goes back to our legislators, our state reps and our Governor. We need help. The PD’s (Public Defender’s) office did a fantastic job. They were one of the most intricate parts of this, and we hope to keep going. But we need help. We need help.”