Report - The Criminalization of Poverty In Tennessee - Details How Criminal Justice Policies And Policing Make Being Poor A Crime And Shares a Different Vision For Community Safety

Vera Institute of Justice/Free Hearts Report Highlights the Need for Community-Based Solutions to Support, Not Punish, Poor Families

New York, NY (April 27, 2022) – Free Hearts and the Vera Institute of Justice today released The Criminalization of Poverty in Tennessee. The collaboratively produced report examines how people are punished for being poor across urban and rural Tennessee, then made poorer by state and local justice systems that put a price tag on freedom and lock people out of employment, housing, and participation in democracy.

Poverty is criminalized when state and local policy choices trap people in the criminal legal system for engaging in activities to survive, such as driving without a license, being forced to sleep outside, or being unable to pay outstanding fines and fees. The effects are compounded by a system that takes money out of people’s pockets with the imposition of money bail, fines, fees, and other costs.

As counties across Tennessee have invested limited local resources in punishment and detention, incarceration rates have continued to rise. In 2018, Tennessee had the twelfth highest combined jail and prison incarceration rate in the most incarcerated nation in the world. At the end of that year, more than 49,000 adults were locked up in jails and prisons across the state, and more than 72,000 were on probation or parole, despite evidence that increased incarceration has no impact on violent crime and may actually increase crime and harm by destabilizing communities.

Over the past decade, operating costs for jails, workhouses, and work release programs have ballooned to more than $534 million, accounting for 15 percent of counties’ general fund dollars on average. The people who have been caught in the crosshairs of this system have a different vision for the state: one in which all Tennesseans can thrive in safe and healthy communities. The report draws on survey responses from across the state conducted by members of Free Hearts as part of its Decriminalize Poverty campaign. Organizers spoke with people in rural and urban communities to understand how Tennesseans experience the criminalization of poverty and what people want and need in order to live safe and full lives. Case studies from Hamblen, ​​Weakley, Sullivan, and Wilson counties illuminate how criminalization intersects with state and local disinvestment in housing, transportation, social services, and public health, disproportionately impacting Black people, women, and children.

“Being poor is not a crime,” said Dawn Harrington, executive director of Free Hearts. “But poor and working class families caught in Tennessee’s criminal legal system are not only criminalized, they are further impoverished and marginalized by the courts, agencies, and other interlocking systems that demand expendable time, wealth, and resources. Organizing directly impacted families across Tennessee has illuminated how urban and rural Tennesseans’ experiences and interests are intertwined—and so is their shared vision for a better state.”

“Mass incarceration and criminalization are not inevitable—they are the result of policy choices that treat the poor and vulnerable as disposable,” said Jasmine Heiss, director of the In Our Backyards Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice. “But policies and investment priorities that favor punishment and harm communities can be changed. Decriminalizing poverty would reflect a true commitment to human dignity, public safety, and healthy, thriving communities.”

The report closes with policy recommendations for state and local policymakers, courts and elected prosecutors.

Recommendations include:

  • transforming the pretrial justice system by eliminating money bail and investing in community-based supports and services;

  • eliminating fines, fees, and costs; restoring all driver’s licenses suspended for unpaid fines and fees; and removing traffic enforcement from law enforcement’s purview; and

  • Placing a moratorium on jail construction and instead investing in housing, supportive services, community-based counseling, treatment, and jobs

The Criminalization of Poverty in Tennessee report and methodology can be found here.

Free Hearts is a Tennessee statewide organization led by formerly incarcerated women that provides support, education, advocacy, and organizes families impacted by incarceration. Founded in 2016 by a small group of formerly incarcerated women in Nashville, the primary goals of the organization are to: build up the leadership of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and family members to reunite families torn apart by incarceration, and strengthen communities. They achieve this by fighting to end mass incarceration through community building & cooperatives, development and communications, direct services, Free The Vote, Participatory Defense, and policy change and campaigns.

The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and activists working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

Media Contact: Brittany Murphy | 508-826-2817 |