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Study says court fines, fees overused

SANTA FE, N.M. — A new report by a law school justice center condemns what it says is the overuse of fines and fees to fund the criminal justice system in three New Mexico counties, calling the financial sanctions an ineffective and wasteful way of paying for a system that benefits all, but unfairly burdens the poor and people of color.

The 70-page study, released last month by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, looked at 10 counties in three states: New Mexico, Texas and Florida. In New Mexico, operations in Santa Fe, Bernalillo and Socorro counties were examined.

The New Mexico counties that were studied “effectively spend more than 41 cents of every dollar of revenue they raise from fees and fines on in-court hearings and jail costs alone,” the report states.

“That’s 121 times what the Internal Revenue Service spends to collect taxes and many times what the states themselves spend to collect taxes.”

The study recommends that legislation be passed to eliminate court-imposed fees.

“Courts should be funded primarily by taxpayers, all of whom are served by the justice system,” the report states.

And it says states should also stop the practice of suspending drivers licenses for nonpayment of criminal fees and fines. “The practice makes it harder for poor people to pay their debts, and harms individuals and their families,” the study states.

The Brennan report acknowledges that more study needs to be done to determine the cost of imposing and collecting fees and fines. Taken into account for the study were expenses such personnel costs for the judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and other staff involved in court proceedings; incarceration costs, where available; and the cost of personnel who take in the fines or fees.

But the Brennan Center said the actual costs are likely much higher than the study estimated “because many of the costs of imposing, collecting and enforcing criminal fees and fines could not be ascertained.”

“No one fully tracks these costs, a task complicated by the fact that they are spread across agencies and levels of government,” the study said. “Among the costs that often go unmeasured are those of jailing, time spent by police and sheriffs on warrant enforcement or drivers license suspensions, and probation and parole resources devoted to fee and fine enforcement. This makes it all but impossible for policymakers and the public to evaluate these systems as sources of revenue.”

Fines are imposed on defendants on conviction of an offense to punish and deter, while fees are intended to raise revenue, often for designated court or law enforcement programs.

The Brennan study argues that time and money spent on collecting and enforcing fines and fees “could be better spent on efforts that actually improve public safety” instead of diverting “police, sheriff’s deputies and courts from their core responsibilities.”

Among the fees charged to criminal defendants, according to the study, are filing clerk fees, public defender eligibility fees, jury fees, DNA database fees and crime lab analysis fees. In New Mexico, there are fees tacked on for court automation, corrections facilities, judicial education, domestic violence treatment and other programs.

For 2016, the Santa Fe Magistrate Court assessed about $1.1 million in criminal fees and fines, wrote off $352,000 for community service and jail time, collected $724,000 and spent $294,000 in collection activity, according to the study.

Bernalillo County “spends at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it raises through fees and fines, meaning that it loses money through this system,” the report asserts.

It says court “assessments per capita were generally higher in rural areas” and Socorro County “had the state’s highest assessments and collections per capita” in 2016.

First of its kind

The study is “the first-ever multi-jurisdiction analysis showing how much it costs governments to impose and collect fees and fines on criminal defendants,” Alexandra Ringe, Brennan’s director of media and strategy, said in an email.

Joanna Weiss, co-director of the New York-based Fines and Fees Justice Center, called the study troubling.

“The Brennan Center Report on fines and fees practices should deeply trouble policymakers in the state (of New Mexico) … Santa Fe is increasingly jailing people for their poverty,” Weiss said in an email statement.

“We would encourage every New Mexico policymaker to read the report carefully and adopt the Brennan Center’s thoughtful recommendations,” Weiss said.

Jail for nonpayment of fines is ineffective, the study says. “Jailing people for nonpayment is by far the most expensive method of enforcing collections and generates little to no revenue – making it highly uneconomical,” it states.

The report found that, in most cases, “fees are intended to shift the costs of the criminal justice system from taxpayers to defendants, who are seen as the ‘users’ of the courts.”

The fines and fees issue was underscored in Ferguson, Missouri, in recent years after a high-profile police shooting, with the revelation that the town was raising revenue through excessive reliance on fees and fines, the study noted.

Arthur Pepin is director of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees courts statewide. He was interviewed by the Brennan Center for its study and was apprised of the study’s findings in a recent interview.

The court system collects about $16 million a year in fines and fees statewide, Pepin said.

Among fees New Mexico courts impose is a $5 Brain Injury Fee from anyone convicted of a Motor Vehicle Code violation. Pepin points out that New Mexico fees and fines are established by law.

“In our state, all of these (fees) are set by the Legislature,” he said.

Metro Court numbers

According to the report, in Bernalillo Metropolitan Court, jail and court costs for collecting fees and fines were $2.178 million in 2016, or 117% of what was ultimately collected.

In that year, the court assessed more than $4.1 million in criminal fees and fines, but $2.2 million was written off with waivers, credits for time served in jail or community service. “Of the remainder, close to $1.9 million was ultimately collected. However, more than $2.1 million was spent on collections activity; therefore, the collected amount reflects a net loss of $316,000,” the report states.

Data for the report came from the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Brennan study says.

Metro Court executive officer Robert Padilla said to his knowledge no one from Metro Court spoke with anyone from the Brennan Center and he provided different figures in an email.

According to his information, in fiscal year 2016, Metro Court collected about $3.69 million in fines and fees in criminal and civil cases, of which $3.15 million was distributed to various state and local government agencies. The balance of collected funds was used for the court’s warrant enforcement, mediation and in-house screening funds in accordance with their statutory requirements, Padilla’s figures say.

The Brennan study says that Socorro Magistrate Court, in 2016, assessed $207,000 in criminal fees and fines, wrote off $88,000 through waivers, credit for jail time or community service, collected $119,000 and spent $96,000 on jail costs and collection for a net gain of $24,000, or 11% of what was originally assessed

Socorro County Magistrate Judge Felix Saavedra said he was interviewed for the study, although it doesn’t name him. “It (fines and fees) generates money, that’s what it’s all about,” Saavedra said in a telephone interview.

But the judge said the fees and fines system is fair because defendants can ask for community service instead or request an extension to pay fines.

Sliding scale recommended

The report also recommends a sliding scale on payment of fees and fines based on ability to pay, but says judges seldom do that, so “the burden of fees and fines falls largely on the poor, much like a regressive tax, and billions of dollars go unpaid each year.”

The New Mexico Supreme Court has in fact established rules on ability to pay, said Pepin of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“We have emphasized with our judges on the fines and fees side the need to assess ability to pay,” he said, adding that the high court “has created by rule more processes by which those who are challenged in their ability to pay have opportunities to be in compliance other than not pay.”

The state also has periodic warrant forgiveness programs, Pepin said, “to try and minimize the degree to which poverty itself is a penalty that people suffer simply because we have a system where fines and fees are assessed by statute.”

Editor’s note: Andy Stiny is a 2019 John Jay College of Criminal Justice Fellow in Cash Register Justice and a former staff reporter at the Journal North.

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