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Illinois Legislators Vote to End License Suspensions for Motorists With Unpaid Parking Tickets

The measure must still be signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has been critical of how ticket debt harms Chicago motorists.

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Illinois lawmakers approved a bill Tuesday that would eliminate driver’s license suspensions for unpaid parking tickets, putting an end to a decades-old practice that has hurt tens of thousands of motorists across the state.

The bill now awaits Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature. A spokeswoman for the governor said he looks forward to reviewing “this meaningful legislation.” Rep. Carol Ammons, a Democrat from Urbana-Champaign who co-sponsored the measure, said that the governor has told her he supports the bill’s intent and that she expects him to sign it.

The legislation, known as the License to Work Act, would end license suspensions for a number of non-moving violations, including the largest category: unpaid parking and vehicle compliance tickets. Advocates say that cutting off driving privileges hurts people trying to get to work, earn a living and pay off debts.

The vast majority of those suspensions affect motorists from low-income, black neighborhoods in Chicago and its suburbs, ProPublica Illinois has reported. Many of those affected have been unable to drive legally for years but do so anyway, risking arrest and getting swept into the criminal justice system.

The bill also restores driving privileges for some 55,000 motorists whose licenses are currently suspended.

If signed, the law would go into effect in July.

“This is a tremendous step forward to move away from trying to squeeze revenue out of people who don’t have it, and by using these egregious and life-altering tools like suspending a driver’s license over parking tickets,” said Eric Halvorson, a policy and communications associate at the Chicago Jobs Council, which has led a coalition of nonprofit organizations advocating for reform for the past three years.

Tuesday’s 88-27 House vote came on the second day of the General Assembly’s annual veto session and seven months after the state Senate approved the measure. It also came after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot voiced her support for the legislation and ushered through an overhaul of the city’s ticketing and debt collection system, including an end to the city’s practice of seeking driver’s license suspensions over unpaid parking tickets.

Ammons said Lightfoot’s support and the city’s reforms were critical to getting the legislation passed. “Because of those changes, a lot of the members that are from the greater Chicagoland area felt a lot more comfortable in saying, ‘Let’s do this whole thing statewide,’” she said. “It was important for largest municipality in the state of Illinois that would be financially impacted by the removal of this suspension to be on board with this reform.”

Lightfoot’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, had opposed the state legislation. Chicago has long relied on the threat of driver’s license suspensions to extract ticket revenue. In 2016, close to 58% of Chicago drivers threatened with license suspension paid their debts or signed up for payment plans to forestall suspension or recover their licenses, ProPublica Illinois found.

But many can’t afford to pay what they owe and turn to bankruptcy instead, contributing to a boom in Chapter 13 bankruptcies here. Close to one in five motorists threatened with license suspension over unpaid tickets in 2016 filed for bankruptcy.

Among them: Laqueanda Reneau, whom ProPublica Illinois profiled in an investigation last year. “The worst part was the commute,” she said Tuesday, recalling the years she went without a driver’s license. Reneau spent hours each day riding several trains and buses to get her young son to day care in the south suburbs, get to work in the city and take classes at DePaul University. “I’m glad. It’s a step forward,” she said of the legislation.

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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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