The Trouble with Court Fines and Fees

A new study recommends Santa Fe Magistrate Court eliminate court fees after finding unpaid fees and fines rose by $500k

The Santa Fe Magistrate Court assessed about $1.1 million in criminal fees and fines in 2016. But the court only pocketed about $430,000—just 38%— according to a new analysis from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice

That year, the court wrote off $352,000 through community service or jail time. Of the remaining $786,000, about $724,000 was collected. Around $294,000 of that was spent on collecting other outstanding court fees and jailing people. 

Most debt that is repaid is repaid quickly and that makes sense,” says Matthew Menendez, who works as counsel in the Brennan Justice Program as part of the New York University Law, and is one of the report’s authors.

People who have money and are able to afford their fees and fines typically resolve that fairly quickly to avoid the negative consequences,” he adds, noting that for those who cannot pay immediately, court costs and fines can cause serious life problems. “The difference between owing debt to a private company and owing it to the government is the government can issue a warrant to have you jailed and suspend your driver’s license. So this money is unlikely to ever come in. But the consequences for the people who owe this debt and are unable to pay it are severe and negative.”

The report also found that uncollected criminal fees and fines imposed by the Magistrate Court rose by $528,367 between 2012 and 2016. On average, during that same time period, 17% of magistrate fines and fees were neither collected, waived or credited to defendants for jail time served or community service completed.
The Brennan Center recommends eliminating court-imposed fees, among other reforms.
While assessing and collecting fines and fees increased through 2015 in Santa Fe County, according to the analysis, both of those decreased in 2016. 
The study’s authors say the fluctuation in fee and fine collection showcases the unreliability of criminal fees and fines as a source of funding for the courts. 
Fines are meant to discourage people from breaking the law and punish those who do. They are typically set by offense. Fees are paid during the court process and are designed to raise revenue—but the Brennan Center says they cripple, in particular, low-income individuals’ abilities to meet their basic needs.
The authors’ study found that across the jurisdictions they considered, including the Magistrate Court in Socorro County and the Metropolitan Court in Bernalillo County, as well as several counties in Florida and Texas, that there is a significant and growing amount of unpaid, aging debt in the court systems. 
That includes in Santa Fe’s. 
Chief Magistrate David Segura tells SFR that he wasn’t aware of the growing unpaid fines and fees owed to the court and that it’s up to the Legislature to change laws regarding the money defendants owe to the court. 
Segura also points out that the data in the study does not include 2017 through 2019, which saw changes in the court system.
“We’ve seen changes in what we’re allowed to do in terms of fee and fines collections,” Segura says. “Because of the reform we can assess amounts [of fines] at whatever amount the defendant chooses to pay [monthly] … That has been a positive change.” 
While defendants can choose to perform community service instead of paying their debt, Segura says that gets mixed results because of drug and alcohol addiction. 
“We have a fairly significant number of people who take advantage of the community service option,” Segura says. “The results are mixed in that … quite frankly those who are in the throes of addiction typically do not. That piece presents an issue for those people.”

A domino effect

When someone is unable to pay a fee or fine in New Mexico, the court issues a bench warrant for that person’s arrest, triggering an automatic driver’s license suspension. The ball rolling downhill doesn’t stop there—to reinstate the license, the defendant must pay again, this time to the state Motor Vehicle Division. 

“It really traps people in a downward spiral of criminal justice debt,” Menendez says. “When most states did this originally, they thought this is such a serious punishment to take away a driver’s license and that’ll make sure people take this payment seriously. There’s tons of people out there who can’t pay and end up having to make this terrible choice between diverting money from their rent or their health insurance … to stop driving or to risk driving on a suspended license.”

If the fee or fine goes unpaid, that person then gets put in jail if they are caught.
According to the report, jail time has a similar effect as suspending someone’s license. Jailing someone for an inability to pay a fine takes them out of the workforce and drains money from the courts and law enforcement. 
“[Jailing people] brings in absolutely no money because you’re just crediting them against their balance owed and it’s incredibly expensive to incarcerate people,” Menendez tells SFR. “You’re wasting public resources, locking people up who pose no threat to public safety.”
One judge in Santa Fe estimated that about half the people who receive a notification return to court and the other half are taken into custody.
Another issue is the amount of time that is spent by law enforcement or the courts in trying to chase down people who owe fines and fees. The Brennan report’s authors wanted to factor that into the courts’ revenues, but found none of the places they looked at were keeping track of time spent on collection attempts.

That’s significant because the people who are collecting these fees and fines, it’s judges and their clerks, sheriffs and police officers, probation and parole officers, all of these people are supposed to be spending their time furthering the cause of public safety,” Menendez tells SFR. “And when they are diverted into focusing on collecting revenue, that’s not doing anything to protect the public and it perverts the incentives of the criminal justice system.”

Instead of fines and fees, the Brennan Center recommends:  

  • style="font-weight: 400;">Fund the courts through general taxes and abolish fees
  • style="font-weight: 400;">Scale fines based on a defendant’s income: Rich people pay more, poor people pay less
  • style="font-weight: 400;">Collect better and more data: Look at how much time and money is being spent on collecting fines and fees and serving bench warrants from court clerks to law enforcement
  • style="font-weight: 400;">Write off debt after a certain amount of time
  • style="font-weight: 400;">Stop locking people up who can’t pay
  • style="font-weight: 400;">Stop suspending peoples’ drivers licenses
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