Paying the Price New Mexico’s Practice of Arresting and Incarcerating People for Nonpayment of Court Debt

Paying the Price NM 786x786
Credit: Alex Nabaum


New Mexico is one of several states where nonpayment of court-ordered fines and fees is punishable by arrest through bench warrants. Prior research has estimated that 60 to 70 percent of New Mexicans miss payments, are issued a summons, and are subsequently issued bench warrants, which sometimes result in incarceration, even though the average payment is only $50 a month.

In this report, Vera builds on this existing research, synthesizing findings from interviews with 16 people who were issued bench warrants for failure to pay fines and fees in New Mexico within the last 10 years, as well as analysis of a sample of more than 100,000 case-level records for all 46 New Mexico magistrate courts (spanning a two-week period in 2019), Bernalillo Metropolitan Court (2017 to 2022), and four municipal courts (2019 to 2022).

Key Takeaway

A person’s ability to make full payment of court debt at any step of their case processing timeline provides a simple pathway to exit the system, while the inability to do so extends the period of system involvement and creates additional mechanisms by which the court can surveil and punish debt holders.

Publication Highlights

  • Warrants for failure to pay court fines and fees are common and widespread throughout the state of New Mexico. Based on Vera’s sample of magistrate court data, at least one-third of all warrants are issued for nonpayment of court debt.

  • Many people are arrested and detained on warrants for nonpayment of court debt, with some waiting in jail as long as two weeks before they are able to see a judge for their failure-to-pay hearing.

  • By and large, people prioritize the swiftest resolution to their case and outstanding debt possible, with the primary objective being an end to their involvement with the legal system. For those without money or resources, payment alternatives— like tax refund garnishments, community service, and even serving time in jail—are the only viable options to resolve outstanding debt and ultimately move past their conviction.

Key Facts