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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Chicago Would Stop Suspending Driver’s Licenses For Unpaid Tickets And Reinstate 57,000 Under Lightfoot’s Reform Plan

Mayor Lori Lightfoot's proposed reforms will have three main parts: payment plan reform, reducing city sticker penalties and ending driver's license suspension for non-driving violations.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces new ticketing policies at press conference in North Lawndale.
Pascal Sabino/ Block Club Chicago
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NORTH LAWNDALE ⁠— Mayor Lori Lightfoot is keeping true on her campaign promise to reform the city’s ticketing practices that disproportionately impacts low-income people of color.

Alongside Ald. Michael Scott (24th), City Clerk Anna Valencia and other partners, the mayor unveiled plans to introduce an ordinance that she expects to pass into law by September. Her announcement, made at a Tuesday press conference at the UCAN social services agency, would have wide-ranging impacts on tens of thousands of drivers with suspended licenses and mounting ticket debt.

The proposed reforms will have three main parts: payment plan reform, reducing city sticker penalties and ending driver’s license suspension for non-driving violations.

The new ordinance would reduce barriers to accessing payment plans by significantly lowering down payments, which currently can reach thousands of dollars. The new payment plans would also accommodate low-income residents by allowing them to pay back as little as $35 per month and eliminating default fees.

The plan reduces city sticker penalties by lowering late fees from $200 to $50 dollars. It also ends the practice of issuing multiple violations on the same or consecutive days.

Lightfoot said that most importantly, the policy will stop suspending licenses for outstanding parking ticket fees. The Mayor’s Office estimates this will allow up to 57,000 drivers to be eligible to get their licenses back.

“This is way more than just about ticket debt. This is about restoring people’s dignity. This is about being able to provide for your family. This is about giving people a real chance to get to work and keep a job,” said Lightfoot.

The Chicago Jobs Council, which is a partner in the city’s reform efforts, estimates that 400 people in Illinois lose their jobs each week because of license suspensions for non-moving violations.

The upcoming changes build off of recommendations from the Fines, Fees & Access Collaborative, a task force assembled by Valencia in December of last year to begin fixing the city’s broken ticketing system. Valencia says that the reforms are just the first step towards building a system of compliance that does not punish people for being unable to afford parking fines.

“We also realized we needed to reframe our thinking,” she said. “What if people weren’t trying to skirt the law, but simply couldn’t comply with it in the first place?”

Chicagoans owe the city more than $200 million in fines since 2012 for city stickers alone. But Valencia notes that without accessible payment plans and the ability to drive to work to earn an income, those fines would just continue to go unpaid anyway.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure that we are balancing our books in a fair and equitable way,” Valencia said. “And because of the difficulties and barriers our residents face due to lack of options, this is revenue or not even collecting. It’s revenue we’re not going to ever see.”

The collaborative was formed on the heels of a ProPublica/WBEZ investigation that found that Cook County has more Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings caused by ticketing debt than any other city in the United States. The report found over 10,000 bankruptcy cases related to parking tickets which were exacerbated by the city’s aggressive use of fine and fee revenue to balance the budget. The mayor said it’s a burden overwhelmingly borne by black and brown neighborhoods like Lawndale.

“Ticket debt piles up disproportionately in the city’s African American neighborhoods. Eight of the 10 zip codes with the most accumulated ticket debt or adult or majority black,” the mayor said.

Reforming ticketing practices was a key piece of the mayor’s campaign strategy on the West Side. At the West Side Mayoral Forum in March, Lightfoot said, “We need to do a top-to-bottom audit of ticketing practices,” noting that over 50,000 people had lost the ability to drive due to parking tickets in the past seven years.

Ald. Scott echoed the mayor’s concerns that the current ticketing practices directly impact the most vulnerable people in the city by taking away their ability to earn an income.

“Our mayor drives this conversation around equity in neighborhoods,” said Scott. “And since the day she got an office, she talked about how she’s going to devote resources to the West Side… but unless you have an administration is willing to put that work into action, it does not work. “

Here are some findings from the ProPublica/WBEZ series entitled “Driven Into Debt.”

· Chicago’s bankruptcy court leads the nation in Chapter 13 filings in part due to debt from unpaid parking, traffic camera and vehicle compliance tickets.

· License suspensions tied to ticket debt disproportionately affect motorists in largely black sections of Chicago and its suburbs.

· Many bankruptcy firms have structured repayment plans to prioritize paying lawyers and their fees ahead of their clients’ creditors, which may make it even harder for people to get out of bankruptcy.

· Black neighborhoods are hit with city sticker tickets at a higher rate, per household, than other parts of the city, according to an analysis of tickets from 2011 to 2015. Tickets issued by police drive the disparity.

· Chicago’s increase in fines for city sticker compliance didn’t raise as much revenue as promised. Instead, debt from this one type of ticket skyrocketed, compounded by late penalties and collection fees.

· Tickets issued in more affluent, majority-white neighborhoods are most likely to get contested and dismissed, according to an analysis of tickets issued in 2017. Tickets issued in predominantly Latino neighborhoods are the least likely to be contested.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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