"I couldn’t afford it. I’d have to give up something, maybe eating, and I really like doing that," said Bill, a 60-year-old Arkansas man who was saddened that his 1973 charge for possession and intent to sell marijuana in Memphis was still on the record.
"You’re 22 years old, fresh from the military, and you make one mistake and it haunts you in your late 60s. It’s strange," he said.
Bill was told that his record would be expunged after completing his court-ordered community service, and, over the years, he passed employer background checks without incident. His fees were eventually covered by a $55,000 private-donation fund raised by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland to help expungement applicants like Bill.
Along with fees rising, many states have broadened expungement fees regulations. Between 2009-2014, 44 states and Washington DC have done this.
In December 2014, the Vera Institute of Justice published a report linking post-sentence financial hardship, which they term "collateral consequences," with recidivism, concluding that these consequences "are legion and present significant and often insurmountable barriers for people with criminal histories to housing, public benefits, employment, and even certain civil rights well after sentence completion…Research shows that recidivism is reduced and communities are made safer not by rendering the millions of people with criminal records second class citizens, but by supporting their transition and reintegration into the community."
For most states, high expungement fees help supplement state funding. Expungement fees account for 90% of Kentucky’s general fund, and 55% of Tennessee’s general fund.
In the case of Louisiana, the mostly self-governing parishes, and lack of a central information sharing system, makes processing applications difficult.
Adrienne Wheeler, executive director of the Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana, said that many of the state’s essential institutions aren’t getting the funds they need, and citizens are shouldering the cost. "We were pretty vocal that this was an impossible cost," she said, adding, "These agencies are not getting the funding that they need to function, so it’s hard to ask them to bring it down."
But driving up fees doesn’t always result in higher revenue. In 2012, Tennessee state legislators passed felony expungement regulations that were projected to bring $7 million dollars annually to the state’s coffers, but they only been able to raise about $130,000 annually, mostly because applicant can’t afford the fees.
Tennessee State Representative Raumesh Akbari recently sponsored a bill that would lower application fees by $100. The measure, that would have reduced state income by some $88,000, never made it to the floor for a vote. Akbari intends to continue pushing the bill, hoping that one day the application will only incur minimal processing costs.