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Here’s What to Expect From Chicago City Council’s Ticket Reform

Chicago became the largest U.S. city to enact major reforms to its system of parking fines and fees. City officials say more changes are coming.

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I’m happy to report this week that the Chicago City Council overwhelmingly approved a pretty major set of reforms to the city’s system of ticketing and debt collection. You may know that I have been, em, a little obsessed with said system for almost two years, when I first joined the ProPublica Illinois team and began reporting on why so many people were filing for bankruptcy over ticket debt.

On Wednesday, my pal Elliott Ramos from WBEZ Chicago — with whom I’ve worked on these stories since last summer — and I watched as aldermen voted 49-1 in favor of the reforms. It was a good morning.

Here’s what aldermen approved:

  1. Putting an end to a decades-old practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid parking and vehicle compliance tickets. I’ve written about how this practice disproportionately hurts low-income and black drivers.

  1. Reforming onerous payment plans. Previously, drivers with substantial ticket debt had to make down payments of up to $1,000 to qualify for a plan. For years, drivers have turned to bankruptcy instead, as it’s more affordable; many firms will file Chapter 13 bankruptcies for no money down. Now, down payment amounts for the city’s payment plans will range from $35 to $100.

  1. Reducing late penalties for city sticker tickets. Now, instead of doubling from $200 to $400, they will rise by $50. Motorists, however, still face a 22% fee if the debt is sent to collections. But the city will reinstate a 15-day grace period after the expiration of vehicle city stickers, so drivers have more time to come into compliance.

  1. End same-day or consecutive-day ticketing for compliance violations, including citations for failing to purchase a city sticker or updated license plate registration. Last summer, Elliott and I reported on the city’s dubious practice of issuing multiple $200 city sticker tickets to the same vehicle on the same day on thousands of occasions.

  1. An amnesty program for city sticker ticket debt, the largest source of outstanding ticket debt in the city. Details on this program have not yet been finalized.

  2. There are other many other changes, outlined here.

Here’s what some people are saying:

“We are working hard to make sure that we relieve that burden and give people their cars back and give them an opportunity to participate in the economy.” — Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

“I understand there is a hardship with some folks in paying for it, but my residents in my community have a hardship with paying an increase [in] property tax, an increase [in] fees and fines, and they obey the law and they abide by the law and they pay their debts.” — 11th Ward Ald. Patrick Thompson, the only dissenting vote.

“I hate when people are talking about the scofflaws, scofflaws. This is about people who walk into our office with $500 to get on a payment plan and are turned away.” — City Clerk Anna Valencia.

What happens next:

The city will immediately stop seeking driver’s license suspensions over unpaid parking tickets, Finance Department officials said. The other reforms will take effect between now and Nov. 15.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are expected to take up a bill to end license suspensions over parking ticket debt across Illinois during the veto session later this fall. If that becomes law, the state would lift some 55,000 suspensions.

As for me, I’m trying to savor this moment. It’s been so rewarding to help bring a problem to light, change the public narrative around “scofflaws” and help make people’s lives better.

Elliott and I plan to keep an eye on the reforms. Please feel free to reach out if you have any tips or questions.

And thank you for reading.

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Portrait of Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter at ProPublica who is focused on immigrants and low-wage workers.

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