Local court officials across Tennessee gained approval last week to add an additional fee if they use an outside collection agency to pursue unpaid criminal court fines and fees. The Tennessee House passed the bill 94-0. Senators approved the bill earlier.

Tennessee Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, co-sponsor of the legislation, in a news release, said "court clerks will have the authority they need to enforce court rulings and close loopholes in our legal system. The bill is greatly needed in our counties where thousands of dollars of fines have been neglected.”

The legislation means certain collection costs are passed on to defendants. Under the bill, if a convicted criminal defendant has a $100 fine, for example, the fine would rise to $120 - with the county keeping $100 and the collection agency receiving $20. Currently, the collection agency keeps a percentage of the $100.

Many criminal defendants pay their court fees but some do not because they end up in jail or flee.

In December, Hamilton County (Tenn.) commissioners acted on a request from the county's criminal court clerk, Gwen Tidwell, to contract with two outside collection agencies to go after an estimated $50 million in outstanding fines or court costs that have built up over the past 20 years.

Tidwell said in December, the office has little chance of collecting more than 10% of the money.

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