Parking, traffic camera and vehicle tickets generate millions of dollars in desperately needed cash each year for the City of Chicago. But for the working poor, and particularly for African Americans, paying for tickets can be difficult — opening the door to more fines and fees, and spiraling debt. Drivers who don’t pay what they owe face tough punishments from the city and state that threaten their livelihoods.
Update, Nov. 4, 2021: The Chicago City Council approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ticket debt reforms at its Oct. 27 meeting, as part of the city’s 2022 budget package. Under the ordinance, the programs will go into effect by March 31, 2022, and expire on Dec. 31, 2023.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has proposed two pilot programs to help low-income motorists cope with the city’s punitive vehicle-ticketing and debt-collection system. One halves the cost of the citations, the other offers debt relief.
Lightfoot, who campaigned in part on a pledge to end what she has called the city’s “addiction” to fines and fees, also proposed forgiving some tickets when motorists come into compliance with the law, a solution some advocates have supported for years.
“We know that sometimes what we need is simply an opportunity to fix the mistake,” Lightfoot said during her 2022 budget address on Monday, when she unveiled the reforms. “So, for compliance tickets, such as city stickers or license plate expiration tickets, everyone will have one opportunity to fix their violation by simply buying the sticker they need and having their ticket forgiven.”
ProPublica has reported extensively since 2018 on how parking and automated traffic camera tickets disproportionately harm low-income, Black residents, sending tens of thousands into bankruptcy over the past decade. Later reporting was done in collaboration with WBEZ and, combined with the advocacy of several organizations, prompted several reforms by the city and the state. Among them: an end to driver’s license suspensions over unpaid tickets, changes to make the city’s ticket payment plans more affordable, and some modest debt relief.
Despite the reforms, the outstanding debt owed for city tickets continues to grow, from about $1.45 billion in February 2018 to more than $1.8 billion today, according to city officials.
Lightfoot’s latest proposed reforms, which would need approval from the City Council, go further than past initiatives to reduce the financial burden that tickets place on low-income motorists. But advocates for ticketing reforms said the city needs to take more ambitious steps to address the underlying causes of the debt, including reducing the number of tickets issued (typically around 3 million a year), lowering the cost of tickets and setting a statute of limitations on debt collection.
“It’s a great place to start. Folks need help, especially after COVID,” said Rosazlia Grillier, a parent leader with Community Organizing and Family Issues, a nonprofit that works primarily with low-income women of color. “But we need more. … I don’t want us to get complacent or stagnant in thinking this is it. People need some real, real, real relief.”
If approved by the City Council, Lightfoot’s debt-relief program and reduction in ticket costs would be available only to motorists who can prove their income is under 300% of the federal poverty line, which puts the qualifying threshold at about $39,000 for an individual and $80,000 for a family of four. Motorists who qualify for debt relief would only have to pay the tickets they’d received in the past three years, minus late penalties. All older debt, including booting, towing and storage fees for vehicles that have been impounded, would be forgiven. That includes charges related to impounded vehicles that were eventually sold by the city, an issue WBEZ reported on last year.
Both proposed reforms would be run as pilot programs through the end of 2023. Eligible motorists could participate in more than one program, said Cesar Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office.
The “fix-it” option that would clear tickets once motorists come into compliance would apply to anybody who, regardless of income, gets a $200 ticket for failing to have a required city sticker on their windshield or a $60 citation for expired license plates, but would only be available once per license plate. To have a ticket dismissed, motorists would have to show proof they corrected the violation by, for example, providing a receipt for a city sticker, which can cost about $144 annually for a large passenger vehicle.
ProPublica and WBEZ reported in 2018 on how residents of low-income, majority-Black neighborhoods on Chicago’s West and South sides have been disproportionately hit with city sticker tickets, one of the most significant sources of outstanding ticket debt and a debt routinely tied to bankruptcies. With late penalties, these citations could grow to $488 each. Lightfoot’s administration has since ended the practice of doubling the price of these tickets when they aren’t paid on time; late penalties have dropped to $50, though collections fees are still applied.
Lightfoot has been criticized, however, for lowering the threshold for $35 speed camera tickets from 10 miles an hour over the speed limit to 6 miles an hour over the limit.
Priya Sarathy Jones, the national policy and campaigns director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, called Lightfoot’s proposals a “step in the right direction by alleviating some collateral harm of fines and fees on low-income communities.”
“But to address the root of the problem of Chicago’s extreme overreliance on this toxic revenue source,” she added, “city leaders will need to consider fundamental changes in enforcement practices,” including issuing fewer tickets and eliminating some types of citations altogether.