The New Mexico legislature has made great strides in criminal justice reform and civil rights this session. One area of reform was the elimination of all court, conviction and bench warrant fees in the criminal courts. This new law refers to the fees being charged of adults – the fees for juveniles were eliminated in 2021. Also this year, the legislature ended driver license suspension for unpaid fines and fees.
These reforms are so important. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice reached out to state and local governments to remind them that fines and fees must be based on ability to pay.
The Justice Department said that unaffordable fines and fees can easily trap people “in a cycle of poverty and punishment that can be nearly impossible to escape.”
Yet in New Mexico and in many other states, you can still go to jail for getting too far behind on your court debt.
How much were the fees? What was the problem?
There had been a minimum of $51 in fees per person in any criminal case. If you were convicted, you would have been additional conviction fees assessed. Failure to pay your fines and fees is a jailable offense.
On top of that, missing any hearing or payment resulted in a bench warrant, which came with its own $100 fee.
The reality is that people in poverty and people of color are overrepresented in our criminal courts. Many people have found it difficult or impossible to pay all the fines and fees they owed.
Under the previous law, their driver licenses would have been suspended, making it much harder to work and earn the money they needed to pay the fees. Ultimately, non-payment would result in jail, which made it almost impossible to pay.
According to a survey cited by the Vera Institute, 80% of New Mexico defendants reported giving up necessities like food and medical care in order to pay court fines and fees so they wouldn’t be arrested.
Are the fees necessary to keep the court system going?
No. Eliminating the fees was done in collaboration with judges, court administrators and advocates in order to ensure that the reforms were sustainable.
Furthermore, the courts were not necessarily receiving much from the fees. In Bernalillo County, the courts were spending $1.17 to collect every $1 in court fees and fines. Other counties spent an average of over $.41 to collect $1 in fines and fees, but Bernalillo County was actually losing money trying to collect.
Criminal justice debt will remain an issue for New Mexicans. At least the courts will no longer be piling on.