In Win for Criminal Legal System Reform, New Mexico Eliminates Criminal Court Fees for Adults

Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Jun 01, 2023

In April, New Mexico passed legislation to eliminate all post-adjudication fees for adults in criminal court. With this legislation, New Mexico joins California as one of only two states in the country that have eliminated these types of fees.

Jurisdictions across the country collect court-related fines and fees for nearly every type of offense, including traffic violations and minor infractions. In 2019, as reported by the Las Cruces Sun News, Hector Garcia was arrested because he couldn’t pay $242 in court fees—fees he accumulated from a charge that was eventually dropped. He died in jail six days later, after detention center staff allegedly failed to provide medical care.

Garcia and millions more have been criminalized for their inability to pay criminal legal system fines and fees. Fines are a monetary punishment. Fees are additional costs—or surcharges—attached to every conviction that exist solely to raise money for government operations. Both can quickly add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. And if people cannot afford to pay, they often—and illogically—face more fines, more fees, jail time, and a host of other consequences.

In New Mexico and nationwide, these discriminatory practices disproportionately impact people experiencing poverty, as well as Black, Indigenous, and Latino people, who are overrepresented in the United States’ criminal legal system because of oft-recorded biases in policing, charging, and sentencing.

In an April letter, the U.S. Department of Justice urged states and localities to examine their practices, noting that court fines and fees can trap people “in a cycle of poverty and punishment that can be nearly impossible to escape.” For example, in a survey conducted by the Fines & Fees Justice Center (FFJC), 80 percent of New Mexicans reported giving up necessities, like food, and forgoing car payments, rent, and medical bills to pay off their outstanding court debt.

“[I] shoplifted formula so my kid could eat,” one respondent said. Others resorted to predatory loan arrangements, like payday loans, to pay off court debt and avoid jail time. People can lose their jobs, their homes, and even the ability to care for their children because they cannot afford to pay off court fines and fees.

Now, the new law, New Mexico HB 139, offers meaningful relief to people in the state. It eliminates all fees that a person who has been convicted would be charged, either at the time of conviction or after. That list includes a $3 traffic safety fee, a $10 to $20 corrections fee, a $10 to $24 court facilities fee, a $10 court automation fee, and a slew of other once-mandatory fees. In all, mandatory post-conviction fees in New Mexico totaled at least $51 per person—and could easily amount to several hundred dollars depending on the type of conviction.

The new law also eliminates bench warrant fees, which courts issue any time someone misses a hearing or payment. New Mexico courts can still issue bench warrants for failure to pay fines and fees, but they are no longer accompanied by a $100 warrant fee. Charging someone who is already unable to pay existing fines and fees additional fines and fees is nonsensical—yet it happens frequently across the country.

“This latest achievement builds on the momentum of previous reforms,” said Maria Rafael, project lead for Vera’s Fines & Fees initiative. Since 2020, Vera has supported local advocacy on fines and fees reform in New Mexico.

The state has made several advancements in recent years to reduce the detrimental effects of fines and fees. In 2021, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham took a crucial step forward to eliminate all fines and fees charged to children. Earlier this year, the governor signed another piece of legislation to end the suspension of driver’s licenses for missed court hearings and overdue fines and fees.

HB 139 was the product of a successful collaboration among the state judiciary, Administrative Office of the Courts, and advocates.

“This legislation demonstrates the courts’ commitment to this effort,” said Monica Ault, New Mexico state director for FFJC. “Our partners in the courts were instrumental in leading this change toward a fairer legal system that eliminates barriers to economic stability for people in our state.”

Despite this progress, there is more to be done. People in New Mexico can still be arrested and jailed for failure to pay fines and fees. In fact, in the same FFJC survey, nearly half of survey respondents—48 percent—said they had gone to jail because they could not afford to pay court-ordered fines and fees. New Mexico is one of several states that waive fines and fees in exchange for jail time. But this practice can actually end up costing the government—and taxpayers—more, since incarceration itself is costly.

“Not only does it not make ethical sense, but it doesn't make any economic sense,” said Rafael. “In fact, the government is likely spending more to incarcerate that person than it would actually be receiving if they could pay their fines and fees.”

Governments waste considerable resources chasing down payments that may never materialize. Indeed, several New Mexico counties have spent considerable amounts of money attempting to collect fines and fees—with minimal return. On average, New Mexico counties spent more than 41 cents for every dollar of revenue raised from fines and fees. Bernalillo County, New Mexico, spends $1.17 for every dollar it collects in fines and fees.

Some states and localities have enacted reforms that eliminate court fees, end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees, implement ability-to-pay assessments (which evaluate a person’s financial and personal circumstances to determine whether they can pay a fine or fee), or otherwise encourage flexibility in assessing fines and fees—but many more need to follow suit. Criminal legal system fines and fees are a harmful and inequitable way to fund government services. Important government operations should be funded by reliable revenue sources—not through fines and fees that extract money from people who can least afford it.