This story is a collaboration between ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago.
After six months of meetings, a task force examining Chicago’s ticketing and debt collection practices on Tuesday suggested an array of reforms that include possible changes to one of the city’s costliest vehicle citations, a targeted debt forgiveness program and an overhaul of the city’s onerous payment plans.
The 25-page report from the Chicago Fines, Fees & Access Collaborative falls short of calling for immediate reforms or specific changes to some of the most controversial practices, including license suspensions over unpaid tickets, late penalties and ticketing disparities. Instead, it lays out a broad road map for Chicago’s City Council if it chooses to introduce legislation to reform the city’s ticketing policies.
“Things of this magnitude took eons to get to this hot mess, so we can’t be unrealistic and change things tomorrow,” said Rosazlia Grillier, a parent leader from the nonprofit Community Organizing and Family Issues who sits on the task force. “The city of Chicago, unfortunately, is complicated. … That’s just the reality. Some of the things we thought we could just do, unfortunately, need a bit more case study and research.”
City Clerk Anna Valencia launched the task force in December in response to reporting from ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago that showed how the city’s ticketing and debt collection practices had disproportionately affected low-income and black neighborhoods. Thousands of residents file for bankruptcy each year to cope with unpaid tickets and late penalties.
In an interview Monday, Valencia described the task force recommendations as “just the starting point” and said she now plans to brief new aldermen on the issues before introducing proposals for reform in the coming months. “I really feel confident that this is a roadmap to remove serious barriers that harm communities and don’t allow people to get ahead,” she said.
The task force — which included community advocates, aldermen and city department heads — met monthly behind closed doors and held several public forums to solicit input from residents. Valencia said the task force will continue to meet quarterly to monitor progress toward reforms.
Ticketing — including costly vehicle sticker tickets — became an issue during the crowded mayoral race this spring, with all 14 candidates promising reform. In a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “It’s time we end our reliance on a system of regressive fines and fees by moving away from balancing budgets on the backs of our low-income residents, and prioritize opportunity for every Chicagoan.”
Some of the recommendations try to shift the city’s use of citations to encourage compliance instead of generating revenue. The report’s authors suggest allowing motorists who receive city sticker tickets — which cost $200 each and quickly can rise to $488 with late penalties and collections fees — to pay a reduced rate of, say, $10 if they come into compliance by purchasing a vehicle sticker. City stickers cost between $88 and $139, depending on vehicle weight.
ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago reported how a 2011 decision to raise the cost of sticker tickets from $120 to $200 produced only modest revenue increases but led to hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for residents. The task force report suggests rolling back the cost of sticker tickets, ending the automatic doubling of tickets when paid late or tying the cost of the ticket to the driver’s income.
The report recommends reforming the city’s payment plans by changing the down payment amount or basing them on motorists’ ability to pay. Currently, motorists with significant ticket debt must make down payments of up to $1,000 to keep their vehicles off the boot list or to lift a suspension of their driver’s license. Advocates have suggested reducing the down payment to just $25 or eliminating it altogether for low-income drivers.
Task force members said they could not come to an agreement on license suspensions. Each year, the city asks the Illinois secretary of state to suspend the licenses of thousands of motorists who have accumulated 10 unpaid parking tickets or five unpaid traffic camera tickets. ProPublica Illinois has reported on how suspensions disproportionately affect drivers from low-income and black neighborhoods in Chicago and its south suburbs.
Legislation to end suspensions was approved by the state Senate but is stalled in the House. Lightfoot’s administration has said she opposes the legislation but will work with advocates over the summer to reach a compromise plan to bring to the General Assembly in the veto session this fall. In a letter to lawmakers last month, Lightfoot said she shares their “deep concerns” over license suspensions but asked for time to “address the totality of these serious issues in a holistic approach.”
Mari Castaldi, the director of policy and advocacy for the nonprofit Chicago Jobs Council, which was part of the task force, said she appreciates the holistic approach taken by both Lightfoot and the task force. But she said she was disappointed that license suspensions were not part of the task force’s recommendations.
“We don’t want to get so bogged down in making everything perfect that we delay taking care of some of the most urgent matters that are causing the most harm,” she said.
Similarly, Alderman Gilbert Villegas, of the Northwest Side’s 36th Ward, said he plans to reintroduce legislation this week to reduce late penalties, give motorists more time to pay tickets, allow some to perform community service in place of some fines and penalties, and reduce down payment amounts for low-income motorists.
The measure died in committee this year, but Villegas said he’s optimistic that it may pass under the new administration. “Every day that we delay puts people at risk, people having to think of bankruptcy,” he said. “I don’t think we need a task force to put forward legislation that’s been impacting black and brown communities.”
The task force also recommends the city create a new financial justice director job, modeled on a similar position in San Francisco, to oversee ticketing reforms. This person would be responsible for creating an analysis for any new ticket, fine or fee in the city for racial and economic fairness.
The task force recommended continuing to study some of the most controversial parts of the ticketing and debt collection system. For example, the report calls for a comprehensive review of how tickets are issued, including whether police should issue citations for non-moving violations at all. “Chicago has a long history of structural racism that spans generations, and thus, it is important to Collaborative members that future assessments be conducted through a racial equity lens,” the report said.
Similarly, the report calls for more review of the city’s massive impoundment program. A WBEZ investigation this year showed how Chicago sold tens of thousands of impounded vehicles to a private towing company for less than $200 each.
Villegas did not mince words on the impound sales.
“I think it’s a stupid policy,” he said. “It’s a dumb policy, and it needs to be revisited.”