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Chicago City Council Approves Modest First Reforms on Ticketing and Debt

The changes signal a growing acknowledgement that the city’s reliance on fines and fees to generate revenue has come at a significant cost for some residents.

This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ.

The Chicago City Council on Wednesday approved the first reforms aimed at helping the city’s low-income motorists cope with ticket debt, with more significant changes potentially on the way.

The approved measures, tucked into Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s final city budget, chip away at a massive problem that has exploded during his tenure: debt and bankruptcies concentrated in black neighborhoods.

In a way, the new policies come full circle, as they seek to undo some of the damage done by a hike in the price of tickets for mandatory vehicle stickers introduced in the mayor’s first budget, in 2011.

Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia (Elliott Ramos/WBEZ)

Aldermen approved a pilot city sticker program designed to help low-income motorists comply with the municipal requirement and to avoid costly citations that have contributed to a bankruptcy boom in Chicago. City Clerk Anna Valencia proposed the program last month in response to ProPublica Illinois/WBEZ reporting on how a 2011 decision to increase the cost of the city sticker citation led to more debt but not much more revenue for the city.

The council also approved a measure from the city’s Law Department to wipe away some ticket debt for motorists who file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7. The measure seeks to curb the number of Chapter 13 bankruptcies filed here to deal with ticket debt, most of which fail to deliver debt relief.

The changes, while modest, signal a growing acknowledgment that Chicago’s reliance on fines and fees to generate revenue has come at a significant cost for some residents, particularly those from low-income, African-American neighborhoods.

For more than a year, ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ have been reporting on ticketing disparities and the impact of ticket debt on low-income black communities. Support for reform has grown steadily.

A coalition of nonprofit groups, including Community Organizing and Family Issues, the Chicago Jobs Council and the Woodstock Institute, has led the public call for an overhaul of the city’s ticketing and debt collection system.

In his first public acknowledgement of the problem, Emanuel said he supported efforts to make municipal fines and fees less punishing for the poor.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“Just know that, in this budget, we took steps to address the issue of equity and fairness while upholding, obviously, the law,” the mayor said during a press conference after the budget was approved. “Across the spectrum of fees and fines, we have a way to address and reflect people of different means. And so we’re going to continue to work on that issue.”

Emanuel is not seeking re-election in February. But a number of the candidates running for mayor — and several aldermen — have said the city’s ticketing system needs reform. In recent weeks, aldermen have put forward two separate proposals to change how Chicago goes after people who cannot afford to pay their tickets.

This week, Alderman Ed Burke, the chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, introduced a proposal that would limit the city’s ability to suspend driver’s licenses over unpaid tickets without first considering motorists’ income. That measure is now being studied alongside a proposal from Alderman Gilbert Villegas, of the Northwest Side’s 36th Ward, to drastically cut late penalties and create community service alternatives to debt repayment.

The proposals may be voted on as early as December.

Valencia announced a proposal this week to give city stickers to veterans for free, saying it was to honor Veterans Day. In an interview Wednesday, she said she is glad there is growing momentum on the issue.

“What I am excited about is that there are more people that are looking at this and willing to work with us on this and see what we can develop to create policies that are going to ease the burden on people,” she said. “We understand the importance of [generating revenue to fund] our mentoring programs and our potholes, but also not doing it on the backs of working families.”

Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines & Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, described the volume of bankruptcies filed in Chicago over ticket debt as “a crisis” that needs more substantial reform.

“It’s great to see there’s interest, but incremental reforms will only get you so far,” she said. “Making it easy for people to get rid of [their] debt only once they’re in bankruptcy doesn’t seem like a viable, sustainable solution for most people. We need to be able to do better than that.”

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