Paying court fees can mean going hungry or homeless—or ending up in jail.
A statewide survey of New Mexicans found that 80% had to choose between paying fees and fines or going without basic necessities such as rent, food and utilities at some point.
And a one-week study of 2021 cases in Bernalillo County, home to Albuquerque, the state’s most populous city, showed that only 4% of people were able to pay their fines and fees in full, while 73% satisfied a portion by serving jail time.
The monetary penalties and legal financial obligations associated with being involved in the criminal justice system—and their effect on low-income defendants—have been a growing cause of concern among New Mexico policymakers. The Legislature recently enacted a package of bills eliminating some of those fees. House Bill 139, for example, eliminated $100 bench warrant fees and post-adjudication fees and expanded the types of “community service” that can be done in lieu of paying court fees. The bill also allowed the court to eliminate unpaid fees assessed before the bill’s effective date.
In the last two years, at least 15 states have passed legislation limiting or doing away with certain fees for adults and young people alike.
“When we force our legal system to fund itself through fees, everyone loses,” says New Mexico Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena (D), the bill’s primary sponsor. “Families should not have to choose between paying court costs or paying for food and housing, and government programs deserve stable and consistent funding.”
Inability to pay fees can trigger a kind of economic Catch-22: Nonpayment might result in a suspended driver’s license, which requires more fees to get back and can affect the ability to work—thereby jeopardizing income needed to pay fees.
New Mexico addressed this paradox by becoming the 24th state to end the suspension of driver’s licenses for missed court hearings and overdue fines and fees payments (SB 47). Enacted in March, the legislation directed the Division of Motor Vehicles to reinstate all driver’s licenses suspended for nonpayment of fines or fees. The bill did not, however, eliminate suspensions or revocations based on dangerous driving, such as driving while impaired.
Stakeholders in justice systems nationwide have argued that some fines and fees are important to funding day-to-day court operations. Some believe that people convicted of crimes, rather than taxpayers, should bear responsibility for the increasing costs of running the justice system. In fact, the fiscal note for New Mexico’s HB 139 listed about nine funds, including the “local government corrections fund” and the “judicial education fund,” that would lose revenue from the elimination of fees. But Shannon Bacon, chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, responded that “the elimination of fee funding is a national best practice, which promotes budget transparency and eliminates the unjust practice of paying for government functions on the backs of those who can least afford it…”
And the National Center for State Courts agrees. “The judiciary must guard against sending the message that courts are somehow responsible for funding themselves and generating revenue to support their own operations,” the center stated in a 2016 report. In 2014, the Conference of State Court Administrators adopted a policy that judicial independence relies on separating court funding from fee generation, which can look like a conflict of interest for the courts.
Other States Cutting Fees
New Mexico isn’t the only state looking at eliminating fees for those involved in the justice system.
In the last two years, at least 15 states have passed legislation limiting or doing away with certain fees for adults and young people alike. In 2021, Colorado eliminated nearly all fees for young people in the juvenile justice system. Similarly, New Jersey has eliminated all punitive fines for juveniles. Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma have all considered limiting or eliminating certain fees in the last two years.
“I definitely believe if somebody violates the law, there should be a little bit of a sting to it. … But they shouldn’t have to carry the full burden of funding our court system,” says Sen. Roger Thompson (R), who sponsored Oklahoma’s legislation.
In 2022, Delaware enacted sweeping legislation that prohibited suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fees and eliminated several court fees for system-involved young people and adults. House Bill 244 got rid of nearly all fines and fees for young people in the juvenile system. It also prohibited charging interest or fees for late payments. The bill also eliminated fees charged to defendants for public defenders.
This is significant because nearly all states assess fees to cover public defender costs either upfront or as reimbursements. The bill ended the $200 fee assessed to people who were put on probation. The Delaware General Assembly launched a study group to consider additional fines and fees reforms last month.
Anne Teigen is an associate director in NCSL’s Criminal Justice Program.