FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 18, 2023
Contact: Monica Ault, email@example.com
New Mexico Legislature Approves Groundbreaking Bill to End Costly Court Fees in Legal System
New Mexico Judiciary and Administrative Office of the Courts Successful in Eliminating Counterproductive Post-Adjudication Fees
SANTA FE, NM –Late last night, with clear bipartisan support, the New Mexico Senate approved legislation to eliminate the post-adjudication and bench warrant fees that have recently become the subject of a national movement to end the criminalization of poverty. It will now go to the Governor’s desk for consideration.
Sponsored by Representative Micaela Lara Cadena of Mesilla, the bill represents a targeted effort by the New Mexico Judiciary, the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts and advocates to realign court priorities and practices.
“The elimination of fee funding is a national best practice,” said Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, Shannon Bacon, “which promotes budget transparency and eliminates the unjust practice of paying for government functions on the backs of those who can least afford it.”
Fees are extra costs that the government attaches to every conviction — even traffic tickets and minor infractions – in order to raise revenue for needed court services. However, they are counterproductive as a revenue source as millions of dollars in fees go uncollected around the state and studies show that the cost of collections can outpace the revenue generated.
“When we force our legal system to fund itself through fees, everyone loses,” said Representative Micaela Lara Cadena. “Families should not have to choose between paying court costs or paying for food and housing, and government programs deserve stable and consistent funding.”
A new survey of New Mexicans from across the state found that fees in the justice system often have devastating effects on families living paycheck-to-paycheck. A whopping 80% of respondents reported forgoing basic needs such as food and rent to pay off court debt. Those who can’t afford to pay are trapped in a cycle of poverty: prolonged or indefinite supervision, driver’s license suspension, and additional insurmountable fees. Many end up serving jail time for inability to pay, even for debt from cases that were ultimately dismissed.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham took a first step toward addressing the issue of unjust fees in 2021 when she signed similar legislation to end the practice of charging criminal-legal fees to children involved in the juvenile justice system–likening the practice to ‘nickel-and-diming’ families.
“Ultimately, when courts have to put so much emphasis on revenue collection, it undermines our people’s trust in the courts,” said Monica Ault, Director of the New Mexico office of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “With HB 139, we’re reaffirming the role of our courts as arbiters of the law, not bill collectors.”
HB 139 additionally includes provisions developed in cooperation with the New Mexico Sentencing Commission that would expand definitions of community service to encourage participation in academics, vocational training, and recovery treatment, as well as reduce costly jail stays related to debt.
“I’m overwhelmed by how much good this bill will do.” said Cynthia Pacheco, Director of Warrant Enforcement for the Administrative Office of the Courts. “We have to pass laws that hold people accountable, but we also have to give them a path out of the system. I’m thinking about the people I talk to everyday and how amazing it’s going to be when I tell them there’s a way out.”