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New Mexico judiciary endorses elimination of some court fees

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s judiciary has endorsed the elimination of court fees for traffic violations and some misdemeanor criminal cases that can have a disproportionate effect on the poor, a top court administrator announced Thursday.

Jason Clack, a division director for the Administrative Office of the Courts, told a panel of legislators that the endorsement is contingent upon replacing fee income with taxpayer dollars from the state general fund.

The Legislature is likely to consider the budget proposal and companion statutory changes when it meets in January 2023.

“The courts here are saying that there is a problem that they are ready to fix,” said Democratic state Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena of Mesilla, who plans to sponsor a bill to rein in court fees.

The new proposal, endorsed by the state Supreme Court in August, would not affect court fines applied by judges as punishment, and municipal courts could continue to collect fees on enforcement of local ordinances.

State courts collect about $16 million each year in fees on traffic and misdemeanor cases to sustain an array of programs include juries, magistrate pensions, an Albuquerque crime lab and support services for people with brain injuries.

The judiciary’s proposal would sustain those programs by diverting money from the state general fund amid a multibillion-dollar annual state budget surplus.

Critics of the current fee system say it’s an inefficient way to fund government programs and has a disproportionate impact on impoverished residents that can deprive them of crucial income and prompt or prolong incarceration.

In New Mexico, unpaid fees are met with some leniency, triggering an assessment of defendants’ ability to pay. That can lead to debt forgiveness, community service requirements, or jail time that provides about $100 credit per day against court debts.

But ignored court hearings and debts lead to bench warrants more than 25,000 times a year statewide, coupled with additional fees.

“Fees are not supposed to be punitive,” Cynthia Pacheco, a program manager for the Administrative Office of the Courts, told legislators. “Under the current system, we’ve started to think of the fees as the punishment.”

Since 2019, a variety of court fees have been eliminated in states including Michigan, Mississippi, Wisconsin and California, along with cities from New York to Portland.

The trend can be traced to intense scrutiny of courts and policing in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the August 2014 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man, by a white city police officer.

The U.S. Department of Justice found that Ferguson was using its municipal police and court system to generate revenue, largely on the backs of poor and Black people.

In 2021, New Mexico lawmakers eliminated the assessment of court fines and fees against juvenile defendants.