Paying the Price New Mexico’s Practice Of Arresting And Incarcerating People For Nonpayment Of Court Debt


40 percent of people who are issued FTP warrants are arrested.

In a two-tiered criminal legal system, those with the resources to settle court-imposed debt result in a quick resolution of the case, but those without financial resources and social status face an extended entanglement with the criminal legal system. When a person fails to make a payment ordered by a court in New Mexico, the court can issue a bench warrant for their arrest if they fail to either appear at the hearing or satisfy their obligations within the designated time period. This practice of arresting and incarcerating people for nonpayment of court debt, specifically fines and fees, illustrates the two-tiered justice system. This brief shares the findings from interviews with individuals arrested for failing to pay court debt in New Mexico and analyzes administrative court data collected from each of the state’s magistrate courts. The results demonstrate that people who cannot resolve their debt through payment face extended time in the legal system. Those who can resolve their debt often do so through community service, tax garnishment, or jail time.  

You can read the full text here.  

Key Findings:

  • In New Mexico, a third of all warrants issued are for failure to pay (FTP).
  • FTP warrants are common for low-level offenses like driving with a suspended license.
  • On average, people who are issued FTP warrants owe about $350 in outstanding fines and fees.
  • FTP warrants are ineffective at compelling timely debt payments; after the first FTP warrant is issued, almost half of all cases remain unresolved.
  • The average person who fulfills their outstanding debt obligations through community service performs 56 hours of service; some complete as many as 236 hours.
  • 58 percent of people in Española Municipal Court use jail conversion to resolve their FTP warrants; the average person spends six days incarcerated to settle their court debt.


  • Eliminate the practice of issuing FTP warrants and retroactively eliminate court debt.
Maria Rafael
Vera Institute of Justice