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FFJC Op-Ed — Death By Fees: How New Mexico Punishes Poverty

The words “debtor’s prison” conjure up images of a dark, barbaric past. But in New Mexico, they never went away — they’ve just been repackaged.

Hector Garcia, a 58 year old father, was accused of stealing a pack of t-shirts from a dollar store. The case was dismissed — but still Hector was apprehended, arrested and jailed. Why?

Garcia did not have enough money to pay $242 dollars in court fees. Because he couldn’t afford these fees, New Mexico issued a bench warrant — a court order that a person can be arrested and jailed.

He spent five days in jail pleading for care. He was suffering from severe abdominal pain, and vomiting blood. Eventually he collapsed. On the sixth day, he was dead.

According to a lawsuit brought by his son, Garcia may have survived his perforated ulcer if the officers intervened.

What happened to Garcia isn’t just the result of a tragic oversight within the criminal justice system — it’s a core feature of pay-your-way justice. Every year thousands of New Mexicans are arrested and jailed simply because they can’t afford to pay minor traffic tickets, fines or fees.

Any time someone misses a hearing or a payment, courts issue a $100 fee and a bench warrant. These warrants direct police to arrest and jail people for everything from minor traffic tickets to felonies.

Bench warrants function as trap doors that lead to a painful process of losing everything. A few days in jail can cost you your job, your home, and even your family. For Hector Garcia, one bench warrant cost him his life.

The archaic cruelty of issuing bench warrants for those who cannot pay should be enough to end this practice now. But it’s also an absurdly inefficient method of coercing people to pay fines and fees. New Mexico counties spend at least 41 cents just to collect a single dollar of fine and fee revenue — that’s 115 times more than the IRS spends to collect a dollar of income tax. Bernalillo County fairs much worse, spending a whopping $1.17 to collect a dollar. Why are we using our limited public safety resources to chase uncollectable debts?

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the government may not incarcerate someone solely because they cannot afford to pay monetary sanctions. And in recent years, several U.S. states enacted new laws that have successfully reduced the harms of fines and fees policies.

Just last month, Nevada enacted two reforms to stop issuing bench warrants for missing a traffic hearing or for unpaid traffic tickets, as well as to stop suspending driver’s licenses when someone can’t afford to pay a ticket. In New Mexico, these cruel and counterproductive practices persist.

Our state is one of just 12 that still treat minor traffic violations as criminal offenses. That means something as common as a cracked windshield could lead to arrest and jail. A new poll just found that 89% of New Mexico voters support decriminalizing minor traffic violations, which would end the practice of issuing bench warrants for an unpaid ticket.

Ending the practice of issuing bench warrants for outstanding court debt isn’t just politically smart and fiscally smart — it’s the morally right thing to do.

It’s too late to save Hector Garcia’s life, but it’s not too late to end the cycle of poverty and punishment that led to his tragic death.

Monica Ault is the New Mexico State Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

This piece was originally published in Santa Fe New Mexican.

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