A bill co-sponsored by state Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Velarde, and Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, which would eliminate some fines and court fees for youths charged with minor crimes, passed both chambers of the state Legislature unanimously. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday signed the bill into law.
“The existing law, it imposes harmful administrative fees from the outside,” Montoya said. “They may not seem like a lot, you know, things like application fees or summonses, but when they’re imposed on young people whose families may not have the financial support, it can quickly add up and by eliminating those fees, it allows young people to find a leg up.”
The bill would amend criminal statues to eliminate court cost expenses, fines or fees for a child or those responsible for a child, along with eliminating the $10 application fee for public defender representation for a child and eliminating fines for possession of marijuana or synthetic cannibinoids, modifying the penalty to no more than 48 hours of community service.
Montoya believes imposing debt on young people can get them trapped in a “pathway to incarceration” that can put stumbling blocks in the way of individuals completing other court requirements or developing their education.
Additionally, he points to disproportionate impacts of court debts on Hispanic, Indigenous and African American youth, who are more greatly affected by historical and inter-generational poverty.
According to a fiscal impact report on the bill from the Legislative Finance Committee, the state has collected an average of about $5,700 per year from juvenile delinquent proceedings over the past five years.
“Many of the colleagues on the other side of the aisle are fiscal conservatives and they said, ‘Well, you know, we really need those funds,’” Monotya said. “But when we looked at the actual data and how many districts and counties are actually collecting those fees, it just made sense to them. They said, ‘My goodness, even if we did collect the fees, it wouldn’t be that much money.’”
According to Montoya, the state would only bring in about 75 cents for each $1.50 spent on collection.
“The squeeze wasn’t worth the juice,” he said.
The law still allows judges to impose community service as a punishment for crimes in children’s court. Montoya doesn’t see the bill as softening the state’s approach to juvenile crime, but merely as being a “surgical tweak” in the law that could save the state money and prevent children from being caught in the justice system at an early age.
“It’s important to note that the bill does not affect the assessment or collection of victim restitution,” Montoya said. “It does not limit the court’s discretion to impose sanctions on a defendant, and it does not change the probation or sentencing requirements.”
Despite some early concerns from conservative legislators about the fiscal impact and about whether the bill may encourage youth crime, the bill passed all committees and both the House and Senate unanimously, showing bipartisan support for the effort.
The bill was developed by the New Mexico Sentencing Commission’s Juvenile Committee, with an endorsement from the full sentencing commission.
Chasey, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, strongly recommended that Montoya co-sponsor the bill because of his background protecting and advocating for youth. He soon joined a larger team including Dave Schmidt, who helped write the original Children’s Code, along with a group of young lawyers from the University of New Mexico.
“It was a beautiful team, we called it the dream team,” Montoya said.
The bill works as part of a larger attitude of reform and rehabilitation in the court’s operations on the juvenile side.
“The proposed change to eliminate fines and fees is in alignment with the rehabilitative approach used by New Mexico Juvenile Justice Services,” the analysis from the Legislative Finance Committee states. “Interventions and supports are designed to the individual needs so granting discretion by Probation will allow for this targeted approach to continue.”