February 11, 2022

Bill would require courts to assess ability to pay when imposing fines

Kendra Chamberlain

A bill that would require courts to consider people’s ability to pay when imposing fines and fees and allow more ways for defendants to settle court debts has cleared the House of Representatives and is headed to the Senate for discussion.

House Bill 81 would require courts to assess a person’s ability to pay before imposing fines for a conviction and would allow cost exemptions for people who are declared indigent. Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, the legislation’s sponsor, said the measure makes sense in part because of money wasted in an attempt to collect fines and fees from people who can’t pay.

“In several court systems in New Mexico, we are spending a lot of tax dollars to chase down money New Mexicans frankly don’t have to begin with,” she told lawmakers during a recent hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

In Bernalillo County, for example, the government spent $1.17 on collection efforts for every $1 collected in fines, Cadena said in an interview Thursday.

The House passed the bill by a vote of 45-21 Tuesday, and it is scheduled to be heard Friday by the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.

The New Mexico Sentencing Commission developed the bill with the national Fines and Fees Justice Center, and Cadena said a majority of the commission’s 27 members — including officials with the Corrections Department and Department of Public Safety — have endorsed the bill.

HB 81 would allow low-income defendants to pay their court debts in installments and would cap the time someone could spend incarcerated for failure to pay. It also would expand the options for people to defray court costs, such as by counting job training, education and rehabilitation programs as community service in lieu of payment and by increasing the rates at which community service hours and incarceration are credited toward court debt.

Critics of the bill have said they are concerned it could result in less revenue for court programs funded by fees, such as the Crime Victims Reparation Commission.

But a fiscal impact report says the bill actually could free up revenue now used for collections.

“The National Center for State Courts has … found that fees and fines frequently cost more to collect than the revenue generated,” according to the report. It adds such costs also “create perverse incentives when used to fund court staff salaries, and disproportionately affect the indigent.”

The state Administrative Office of the Courts estimated in 2021 a similar bill could have resulted in a loss of $3 million to $15 million, but an impact report for the proposed measure found the estimate was based on fees assessed, rather than those collected.

While the agency estimated $4.8 million in court costs and penalties had been assessed for traffic cases, the report said, a Legislative Finance Committee analysis projected collected revenues for such cases in fiscal year 2020 were only about $1.2 million.

“Fines and fees are not only an unreliable source of government revenue, they perpetuate the criminalization of poverty and keep New Mexicans in a never-ending cycle of debt and court involvement,” the justice center’s New Mexico state director, Monica Ault, told lawmakers during a recent presentation of the bill.

“The strongest indicator that fines and fees are considered excessively burdensome,” Ault said, “is that a large share of New Mexicans convert them to jail time rather than pay them because they simply do not have the money.”

Cadena said incarceration comes with its own set of costly and disabling consequences, including increasing the frequency and severity of recidivism.

People who have the means to pay will still pay if the bill is passed, Cadena said. And those who won’t pay likely are those who already aren’t paying — because they can’t.

Evidence-based court programs that rely on fines and fees for funding should receive consistent funding from the state general fund, she added.