New Mexico weighs court fees reform

SANTA FE, N.M (AP) — New Mexico legislators are considering proposals to reduce court fees and declutter courts in an effort to bring socioeconomic equity to the state’s justice system.

“We’re trying to achieve a consensus,” on potential legislation, said Angela Pacheco, a retired Santa Fe prosecutor and member of the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, which includes victim and prisoner advocates.

In a presentation to state legislators Wednesday outlining initial proposals, criminal justice advocate Monica Ault used the story of a previous criminal defense client to illustrate how court fines can snowball out of control, to the detriment of defendants and the courts.

“I had a client who was working at Denny’s and was required to pay ($746) in 30 days. He of course could not do that,” said Ault, a criminal defense attorney and State Director of the New Mexico branch of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

In practice, many judges to offer payment plans. In recent cases available in public records, payments can be around $50 per month for low-income defendants.

But the New Mexico Sentencing Commission wants to make payment plans mandatory, and cap payments for both fines and fees at 2% of net income or a minimum of $10 per month.

“If we can get this done, I cannot even tell you the misery we get rid of,” said Democratic Rep. Gail Chasey, of Bernalillo County. “We are perpetuating poverty with this system.”

The current fines and fee system is also costly, Ault told the Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee. Citing a Brennan Center for Justice study of 2016 data, she pointed out that Bernalillo County spent $1.17 for every $1 collected.

“If you can’t pay for a lawyer, then you probably also can’t pay for other things,” Ault said. “So why do we task law enforcement to go after money that we know doesn’t exist?”

Ault said the fast-food worker she represents was only able to pay $50 toward his fine, and the court issued a $50 bench warrant fee “and the balance just kept going up every 30 days.”

Criminal Justice Reform Subcommittee Co-chair Sen. Sander Rue, a Republican, said he's optimistic that the reforms presented by Ault could be brought up in legislation during the 2021 legislative session.

“I guess the question is how far do we go with this?” he said.