Death by the Fees: How New Mexico Punishes Poverty | My opinion

The words “debtor’s prison” conjure up images of a dark and barbaric past. But in New Mexico, that past has never gone away – it has just been repackaged.

Hector Garcia, a 58-year-old father, has been accused of stealing a bundle of T-shirts from a dollar store. The case was closed, but he was still apprehended, arrested and imprisoned in Las Cruces. Why?

Garcia did not have enough money to pay $ 242 in legal costs. Because it couldn’t afford those fees, New Mexico issued an arrest warrant – a court order that a person can be arrested and jailed.

He spent five days in prison seeking treatment. He suffered from severe abdominal pain and was vomiting blood. Eventually he collapsed. On the sixth day he was dead.

Garcia could have survived his punctured ulcer had the police intervened, according to a lawsuit filed by his son.

What happened to Garcia was not just the result of a tragic oversight within the criminal justice system – it was a hallmark of paid justice. Every year, thousands of New Mexicans are arrested and jailed simply for not having the means to pay tickets, fines or minor fees.

Every time someone misses a hearing or a payment, the courts issue a $ 100 fee and an arrest warrant. These warrants order police to arrest and jail people for everything from minor tickets to misdemeanors.

Bench guarantees work like traps that lead to a painful process of losing everything. A few days in jail can cost you your job, your house, and even your family. For Hector Garcia, an arrest warrant cost him his life.

The archaic cruelty of issuing arrest warrants for those who cannot pay should be enough to end the practice now. But it is also an absurdly ineffective method of coercing people into paying fines and fees.

New Mexico counties spend at least 41 cents to collect a single dollar in fines and royalties – that’s 115 times more than what the IRS spends to collect a dollar in income tax. Bernalillo County is much worse, spending $ 1.17 to raise a dollar. Why are we using our limited public safety resources to drive out bad debts?

The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that the government cannot jail someone just because they cannot afford to pay monetary penalties. And in recent years, several US states have enacted new laws that have been successful in reducing the harms of fines and fees policies.

Last month, Nevada enacted two reforms to stop issuing arrest warrants for missing a traffic hearing or for unpaid tickets, as well as to stop suspending driver’s licenses when someone failed. can’t afford a ticket. In New Mexico, these cruel and counterproductive practices persist.

Our state is one of 12 that still treat minor traffic violations as criminal offenses. This means that something as common as a cracked windshield could lead to arrest and jail. A new poll has just found that 89% of New Mexico voters support decriminalizing minor traffic violations, which would end the practice of issuing arrest warrants for an unpaid ticket.

Ending the practice of issuing arrest warrants for unpaid court debts is not only politically smart and fiscally smart, it is the morally right thing to do.

It’s too late to save Hector Garcia’s life, but it’s not too late to end the cycle of poverty and punishment that led to his tragic death.

Monica Ault is the Director of State at the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

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