SANTA FE, NM (AP) — The New Mexico Judiciary has approved the elimination of court fees for traffic violations and certain criminal misdemeanor cases that can have a disproportionate effect on the poor, announcing a leading court administrator on Thursday.
Jason Clack, division director of the Courts Administrative Office, told a panel of lawmakers that approval hinged on replacing fee revenue with taxpayers’ money from the state’s general fund.
The Legislature will likely consider the budget proposal and accompanying legislative changes at its January 2023 meeting.
“The courts here are saying there’s a problem they’re ready to fix,” said Democratic state Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena de Mesilla, who is considering sponsoring a bill to cap the costs of justice.
The new proposal, approved by the state Supreme Court in August, would not affect fines imposed by judges as punishment, and municipal courts could continue to collect fees for enforcing local ordinances.
State courts collect approximately $16 million each year in fees on traffic and misdemeanor cases to support a range of programs including juries, magistrate pensions, an Albuquerque crime lab and support services for people with brain damage.
The judiciary’s proposal would support those programs by diverting money from the state’s general fund amid a multibillion-dollar annual budget surplus.
Critics of the current fee system say it is an inefficient way to fund government programs and has a disproportionate impact on poor residents, which can deprive them of crucial income and cause or prolong incarceration .
In New Mexico, unpaid charges are met with some leniency, which triggers an assessment of defendants’ ability to pay. This can result in debt forgiveness, community service requirements, or a jail sentence that provides a credit of around $100 a day against court debts.
But hearings and ignored debts lead to arrest warrants more than 25,000 times a year across the state, coupled with additional charges.
“Fees are not meant to be punitive,” Cynthia Pacheco, program manager at the Courts Administration Office, told lawmakers. “Under the current system, we have started to view fees as a punishment.”
Since 2019, a variety of court fees have been eliminated in states including Michigan, Mississippi, Wisconsin and California, as well as cities from New York to Portland.
The trend can be attributed to court and police scrutiny in Ferguson, Missouri, following the August 2014 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a white city police officer. .
The US Department of Justice found that Ferguson was using its city police and justice system to generate revenue, largely on the backs of poor and black people.
In 2021, New Mexico lawmakers eliminated assessment of fines and court costs against accused minors.
. justice NewMexico approves elimination some fresh justice