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.
A bill to help victims of human trafficking passed unanimously in the House Health and Human Services Committee Monday, but the bill will die this session if the Senate doesn’t add it to the budget according to advocates. HB 101, would provide $350,000 for emergency services for victims of human trafficking. Susan Loubet, executive director for New Mexico Women’s Agenda, said the money would be used to help the victims get away from the trafficker by providing them with clothes, food and housing. Mary Ellen Garcia, with Crime Victims Reparation Commission, said the state, and the nation, is seeing rising numbers of human trafficking, creating victims of all ages. Garcia said that some believe there are 5,000 vulnerable kids in Albuquerque alone and half to two-thirds of them are already being trafficked for sex or labor.
A bill that advocates say could aid children in getting away from human traffickers passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously on Wednesday. SB 66 would appropriate $250,000 from the general fund to the Crime Victims Reparation Commission. The commission would then make money available to social service agencies which advocates say are often on the front lines of trying to help youth who have been trafficked. According to the bill’s fiscal impact report, there are 5,000 kids who are homeless in Bernalillo County alone. A large number of that 5,000 are believed to be trafficked victims.
Lynn Sanchez, a victims’ advocate who spoke as the expert for the bill, told NM Political Report that the money can help stabilize the kids.
A state agency that helps compensate victims of crimes was called out by the U.S. Department of Justice for using federal grant money to reimburse victims for medical cannabis purchases. The U.S. Office of the Inspector General released its audit of the New Mexico’s Crime Victims Reparation Commission this week, and criticized the agency. Cannabis, the federal agency said, is still illegal on a federal level. “While medical marijuana is legal in the State of New Mexico, federal law does not recognize or protect the possession or use of medical marijuana,” the audit read. “As a result, medical marijuana is an unallowable expenditure and cannot be paid for with federal grant funds.”
The Office of the Inspector General recommended the state commission change its procedures to make sure federal money does not pay for cannabis.
State Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat who was raised in foster care and has largely focused his legislative efforts on reforming New Mexico’s child welfare system, has introduced a measure to create a task force on child homicides. The proposal also would give the state attorney general authority to order an independent investigation into a child abuse death. The team would include medical experts, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, child welfare workers, tribal members and others. It would be tasked with evaluating investigations of a child’s death, as well as examining how agencies and individuals responded to concerns about the child before the slaying. The task force also would make recommendations to the Legislature on needed reforms.
Senate Bill 294 comes as New Mexico experiences a steep rise in child abuse cases.