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Lawmakers over the years have imposed a long list of fees for people convicted of criminal offenses to pay for programs ranging from jury and witness payments to a magistrate retirement fund.
Critics of court fees, including the Administrative Office of the Court, now propose eliminating fees on misdemeanor and traffic offenses and are asking lawmakers to appropriate $16 million from the general fund to replace those revenues.
They argue that court fees place an added burden on people who can ill afford to pay and can even cause some to commit crimes to pay their court costs.
Critics also say that some people spend time in jail to satisfy court fees, contributing to jail overcrowding in New Mexico.
AOC Director Artie Pepin told legislators in a letter that court debt “can trap the poor in a cycle of debt that can never be paid” and provides an unstable source of funding for vital programs.
“In addition to the impact that these fees have on economically distressed communities, they are also an inefficient way to fund important programs,” Pepin wrote in a June 1 letter to lawmakers.
“Fee revenue varies from year to year, leaving government programs that rely on fees uncertain about revenue and scrambling to adjust when fee revenue declines,” he wrote. “These programs merit general fund recurring appropriations.”
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of eliminating court fees. Republican state Rep. Bill Rehm called court fees “a user fee” paid by the people who utilize the criminal justice system.
“What they’re saying is that law abiding citizens would have to pay” for the criminal wrongdoing of others, Rehm said Friday. People who legitimately can’t afford court fees can work out payment plans or perform community service, he said.
To replace all misdemeanor and traffic fees, the Legislature would need to appropriate an estimated $16,555,000 from the state’s general fund, the AOC estimates.
Jennifer Albright, deputy director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said she believes that many legislators are receptive to finding new ways to fund programs.
“That revenue is very unstable and it has continuously gone down,” Albright said of court fee revenue. Collecting fees also puts an administrative burden on the courts, requiring costly staff time and resources, she said.
Judges also face the difficult choice of putting people in jail for failing to pay fees, Albright said.
The AOC proposal also would eliminate the $100 warrant fee assessed at the time a bench warrant is issued.
Failure to appear or pay fees results in the issuance of more than 25,000 bench warrants each year, AOC estimates.
“If they still have no ability to pay, they could be incarcerated as a method of paying those fees,” Albright said. She did not have an estimate of how many people serve jail time to pay court debt.
Defendants serving jail time receive credit toward court debt at a rate of $98 per day until the debt is paid. But the cost to taxpayers of incarcerating jail inmates runs about $100 a day, AOC estimates.