New Mexico resident Mona Serna understands how harsh the criminal justice system can be for poor people in her state. In the 1990s, she was a young, single mom of three children working for a very low income and also looking after her father.
When she got a speeding ticket that she couldn’t afford to pay, the state suspended her license, and her court fees began to rack up.
“It was really emotionally and mentally hard,” Serna says. “I didn’t have the finances to pay at the time, and I was scared to drive.”
She faced an impossible bind: drive illegally in order to get to her job so she could take care of her family or stop driving and neglect her loved ones’ needs. She didn’t know how she would dig herself out of debt.
“You feel like a criminal, even though you’re not,” Serna says.
In recent years, the plight of New Mexicans like Serna has animated advocacy groups to fight for legislative changes to the criminal justice system, not just around reducing collateral consequences like license suspensions and fees, but also reviewing overly punitive sentencing practices.
New Mexico lawmakers have risen to this task, and recently Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed into law a series of landmark justice reform bills that create fair and data-driven justice practices while also delivering accountability and community safety.
It’s encouraging to see the state being intentional about how much it wants its system to impact people.Destiny Carter Advocacy manager for criminal justice at Arnold Ventures
“These bills are relying on the evidence and taking a look at how much we want our system to impose limitations on individual liberty,” says Destiny Carter, advocacy manager for criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “It’s encouraging to see the state being intentional about how much it wants its system to impact people, what the appropriate measures of justice and accountability are, and how it can make sure that justice-involved people have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and re-engage in society.”
Ending Penalties on the Poor
One new piece of legislation, championed by the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC), a national advocacy organization, ends the practice of suspending driver’s licenses due to court debt, failure to pay, or failure to appear. Monica Ault, FFJC’s New Mexico state director, explains that over 300,000 residents of the state currently have their license suspended for failure to appear or failure to pay. People are often unaware when such suspensions occur, leading to more severe penalties if authorities discover that they are driving. In a largely rural state with little public transit, people with suspended licenses may struggle to drive their kids to school, get to their job, or access health care.
Working with local advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children, FFJC gained bipartisan support for their effort. Sponsoring the bill were Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, Republican Senator Crystal Diamond, and Democrat Representative Christine Chandler.
Crucially, FFJC elevated the voices of people whose licenses had been suspended. Serna was one of them. Today, she is a case manager in Rio Arriba County, where she helps people with substance abuse to get back on their feet after involvement with the justice system. She joined the FFJC advisory board and spoke to legislators in Santa Fe about how fees and license suspensions have affected her and her clients.
“I wanted to be a part of changing the laws, so others don’t have to go through what I went through,” Serna says.
This past March, Gov. Grisham signed the bill into law, ending debt-based driver’s license suspensions and reinstating approximately 300,000 licenses that were suspended because of failure to pay and failure to appear.
“It feels so good that it got signed,” Ault says. “This is a lifesaver to so many people who I know.”
FFJC and New Mexico Voices for Children also supported a new bill ending fees for convictions and bench warrants. Ault points out that such court fees can be crippling to residents and their families, falling disproportionately on women and people of color. A survey in New Mexico showed that 60% of respondents were trying to make payments on their court debt while also raising children. Some had committed new crimes to pay their debt.
number of respondents trying to make payments on court debt while also raising children
Such fees are also massively inefficient at funding the courts, according to a landmark study from the Brennan Center.
“The state was actually losing money trying to go after these fees,” explains Javier Rojo, a research and policy analyst for New Mexico Voices for Children.
In March, Gov. Grisham signed the bill into law, which will eliminate between $5 and $12 million in fee funding after it takes effect in 2024. The new law also provides a pathway for people who currently owe debt to have it forgiven. The move places New Mexico alongside California, which recently eliminated several types of fees and forgave past debt.
The bill also includes provisions developed in cooperation with the New Mexico Sentencing Commission that mandate payment plans for fines, cap the amount of time someone can be incarcerated for failure to pay, and expand the definition of community service to encourage participation in academics, vocational training, and substance use treatment.
Chief Justice Shannon Bacon was a vocal supporter. “To have her lead this initiative was monumental,” Ault says. “Fee elimination and fine reform was no longer just something that we were asking for but something that the courts were also asking for, because they were tired of essentially being funded off the backs of the people who can least afford it. This led to chronic underfunding of the courts and other government services due to the volatility and unreliability of the source. We could not have achieved such a huge win in 2023 without the support of the New Mexico judiciary.”
Tackling Long Sentences
Other legislation in New Mexico aims to review overly long sentences and offer people options for release. In recent years, a coalition came together — including Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY), and New Mexico Voices for Children — to support a new bill that would ban juvenile life sentences without parole, as well as creating parole eligibility for those serving long sentences for crimes they committed as children.
Preston Shipp, senior policy counsel at CFSY, a national nonprofit that leads efforts to ban extreme sentences for children, says it’s important to offer people the possibility of redemption. “Kids should never be told that there’s no hope for them, no matter how they may change,” he says. “That’s immoral.”
He points to brain science showing that minors are less culpable for their actions — they lack the impulse control, emotional regulation, and understanding of consequences that adults possess — and says that while children must be held accountable for causing harm, punishments should be age-appropriate. Moreover, advocacy groups stress that people sentenced to life as juveniles can be released without compromising community safety. According to research from Montclair University, their recidivism rate is extremely low at 1%.
“The numbers show that this is a population that can be released safely,” says Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, an organization that challenges mandatory sentencing laws. “Sending somebody to prison for life at 16 or 17 just doesn’t make any sense. People age out of crime.”
This year, Shipp met with lawmakers, prosecutors, and victim rights groups in Santa Fe to share information about the issue. The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support and in March, Gov. Grisham signed it into law. Under the new law, people who received life sentences when they were under 18 are eligible for parole hearings 15 to 25 years into their sentences, depending on the conviction. The change will affect around 80 people in New Mexico, according to CFSY.
FAMM also supported a bill to fix New Mexico’s flawed system for medical and geriatric parole, an effort to create options for “compassionate release.” Its provisions include bringing the age of eligibility down from 65 to 55, expediting the timeline for handling terminal illness cases, and requiring the corrections department to proactively identify candidates for parole and tell them how to apply.
FAMM set up a hotline allowing people in Mexico to call the governor, ran an op-ed, and conducted on-the-ground lobbying to support local advocacy groups. Gov. Grisham signed that bill into law, as well.
There’s a large number of people who are sent away to prison for excessive periods of time who at least deserve an opportunity to have their sentences reviewed.Kevin Ring President of FAMM
“There’s a large number of people who are sent away to prison for excessive periods of time who at least deserve an opportunity to have their sentences reviewed,” Ring says. “That’s why we need more second chance mechanisms, like clemency and compassionate release.”
Law Enforcement Training
Additional legislation signed by the governor in April aims to improve the justice system in New Mexico by strengthening the standards to be a licensed law enforcement officer and the grounds for decertification. The new law empowers the police standards and training council to establish standards that police officers must meet to be certified in the state. It also explicitly notes a standard that officers use the least amount of force possible and requires that officers must meet training standards or else risk losing their license.
“Common sense police accountability laws like New Mexico’s are critical to making policing more fair and more effective,” Marc Krupanski, director of criminal justice at AV, says. “Policing is a high-risk profession and must be treated as such. Improving standards to be a licensed officer, especially on issues like use of force and certification, is a win-win for the police and for the communities they serve. Improved standards can improve community trust, which in turn can improve police effectiveness.”
The Fight Continues
The passage of these laws represents a major victory for justice in New Mexico, where lawmakers are increasingly following the evidence to make policy. In the coming legislative sessions, advocates want to continue this momentum as they fight for additional reforms — from pretrial practices to law enforcement policies to prison oversight.
For example, the Justice Action Network (JAN) recently supported a bill that would have limited incarceration for violations of probation and parole terms. That bill showed bipartisan support in the Senate, but ultimately the governor recently vetoed it, citing concerns from district attorneys about community safety.
“The probation and parole systems in New Mexico are broken, and they remain broken because nothing was passed to fix them,” says Jenna Bottler, deputy director of JAN. “We are absolutely still pushing for reforms to the system to make sure probation and parole are agents of change in people’s lives rather than just revolving doors.”
Another work in progress is pretrial reform. In 2016, New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment that overhauled the state’s bail system, and the judiciary wrote new rules that did away with an arbitrary, wealth-based bail system that kept too many people in jail before trial and let out dangerous people with means. Those rules have been rolled out in jurisdictions across the state, with good results. But work remains to be done to improve implementation, including training judges and evaluating data.
In advancing further changes, advocates agree that the key is focusing on data, bringing all stakeholders to the table, and learning from what has worked in other jurisdictions across the country.
“The biggest thing will be making sure that the conversation about criminal justice policy in New Mexico always goes back to the data, while avoiding knee-jerk responses,” Bottler says. “Everyone wants to see a reduction in crime, and a system that’s working well for taxpayers and justice-involved people alike.”