Punishing the Poor: An Assessment of the Administration of Fines and Fees in New Mexico Misdemeanor Courts


In a 2021 case study, ABA found that 73 percent of defendants in New Mexico paid some portion of their fines and fees with jail time.

Low-income people in New Mexico accused of minor crimes are often caught in a vicious cycle where they are jailed because they can’t afford to pay monetary sanctions. In 2018, the American Bar Association (ABA) developed guidance on fairly administering court fines and fees to ensure people are not penalized for being poor. In addition, from 2018 to 2022, the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense (ABA SCLAID) conducted court observations and interviews of justice system officials in New Mexico’s misdemeanor courts to assess whether their practices align with ABA policy and identify areas for improvement. Researchers found that New Mexico assesses many user fees without providing timely ability to pay assessments, routinely issues bench warrants for failure to appear, and commonly use jail time as credit towards payment for fines and fees. The report also provides recommendations on how New Mexico courts can bring their practices into compliance with ABA policy and the requirements of the U.S. constitution. 

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • Bench warrants are routinely issued for failure to appear, failure to comply, or failure to pay, and accompanied by a fee of $100.
  • Results of a 2017 case study on bench warrants found 66 percent of individuals received at least one bench warrant, and 11 percent received three or more.
  • New Mexico’s Motor Vehicle Department will issue an indefinite suspension of an individual’s driver’s license when a bench warrant is issued.
  • New Mexico allows individuals to complete community service in lieu of payment and each hour is credited $7.25/hour; an individual would need to complete almost 50 hours of community service to pay off $350 worth of fees.


  • Eliminate or reduce court fees.
  • Conduct ability to pay assessments at the time fines or fees are imposed.
  • Conduct an ability-to-pay hearing before jailing someone for nonpayment.
  • Improve alternative payment options that are personalized for each individual.
American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense & Arnold Ventures