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Legislation that would make it easier for low-income defendants to pay court fees and fines passed the New Mexico Senate on a 25-15 vote Monday, March 1, over the objections of Republicans who argued that it would make it easier on criminals.
“It isn’t about the fees or the fines, this is about actual punishment,” said Minority Leader Sen. Greg Baca, R-Rio Rancho. “If you do something wrong, you’re supposed to have some kind of punishment attached to that.
“The only time we in this building decide to save money is when it comes to incarcerating people or issuing some kind of punishment,” Baca said. “When we do things wrong in our society, it’s supposed to be an inconvenience.”
But Majority Leader Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the bill was in keeping with a national trend moving away from using money as punishment.
“This is something that’s being discussed around the country now,” he said. “The question becomes should we use money … how is it fair to be using money as a system of punishment?”
Wirth said the Legislature was responsible for creating a system that ensnares its most vulnerable residents.
“We’ve just layered our code with all these fines. And the problem is that once people get sucked into this, there’s a vicious cycle that happens. Someone can’t pay a couple-hundred-dollar fine and they end up in jail; they lose their job.”
Senate Bill 181 is sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who was not present for Monday’s debate. It was endorsed unanimously by the New Mexico Sentencing Commission.
The bill would require the court to assess a convicted person’s ability to pay before imposing standard fees and costs. If it is determined that a person is unable to pay, he or she would be allowed to enter into an installment program, making payments each 30 days not to exceed 2 percent of their income.
The bill would also change the calculation for those paying off fines with time spent in jail, giving them credit for all 24 hours in a day, at a rate equivalent to the minimum wage. The current system only credits eight hours a day.
And, it would expand the community service provision to include education, job training and rehabilitation
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, explained that those convicted of a crime would still have to pay whatever they owed.
“People still do have to pay fines and fees,” Ivey-Soto said. “It simply makes sure we give them an opportunity to pay them if they can’t pay it at the moment of conviction.”
Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, predicted that the state would spend more money on collections and still not receive all of the fines and fees it is due.
“It’s hard for me to support a bill that’s going to create more bureaucracy,” Burt said. “it’s going to cost the taxpayers more money because we’re allowing folks to pay in time. And they won’t pay, because that’s the nature of people all over the world.”
The bill passed on a party-line vote and now moves to the House.
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com.