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She’s Risked Arrest by Driving With a Suspended License for Seven Years. This Week She Got Some Big News.

Some 55,000 Illinoisans could regain their driver’s licenses very soon.

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The woman on the other end of the line launched into her story immediately, as if I might cut her off or hang up if she didn’t get the words out.

“I’ve been calling places all morning, the secretary of state, the city, to find out what’s happening with the license suspensions,” she told me. “My license was suspended in 2012 over parking tickets.”

Over the past year and a half, I’ve become a de facto counselor for desperate people across Illinois whose lives have been devastated because of ticket debt. They find my stories and my phone number and call me to ask who the good attorneys are, how to get their licenses back or if I have tips for convincing the city of Chicago to negotiate paying off their tickets.

There haven’t been many places where they could turn to for help, so mostly I just listen.

I began reporting on this issue in October 2017 and published my first story on how debt from unpaid tickets sends tens of thousands of Chicago motorists into bankruptcy the following February, with my colleague Sandhya Kambhampati. Filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy is cheaper than entering a city-sponsored payment plan, but it rarely leads to long-term debt relief. Most indebted motorists are too poor to keep up with monthly payments that can stretch for five years. When their bankruptcies collapse, they find themselves filing for bankruptcy again and again in order to lift license suspensions or retrieve impounded vehicles.

On Tuesday, something happened that could change all that. Citing our analysis on how ticket debt disproportionately burdens black and low-income neighborhoods, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced a series of proposals to reform the system, including ending license suspensions over unpaid parking tickets and making city payment plans more affordable.

These proposals have the potential to transform the lives of tens of thousands of families. The mayor also promised to support legislation to end license suspensions over parking ticket debt statewide; if passed, which with Lightfoot’s support is almost guaranteed, some 55,000 Illinoisans could regain their driving privileges.

That includes the woman who called me Wednesday, after reading the story I wrote about the reforms with WBEZ’s Elliott Ramos, whom I’ve partnered with since last summer to investigate ticketing. She wanted to know how soon she’d be able to drive legally again.

For seven years, she told me, she has been driving illegally on a suspended license, running the risk of getting pulled over and arrested every time she gets behind the wheel. Her license was suspended after she racked up thousands of dollars in debt by leaving a broken-down car on a street where it got ticketed over and over. The debt, she told me, cost her her license and her job as a Chicago Public Schools classroom aide in 2012. City employment policies make it difficult to get or keep a city job if you have unpaid tickets — unless you’re on a payment plan or in bankruptcy.

“I haven’t had a good job since,” she told me, adding that lately she’s been working at a factory. “I’ve thought about bankruptcy, but don’t want to do that.”

Here’s what I could tell her: Lightfoot’s proposals need approval from the City Council, which is expected to happen in September. If approved, those changes could go into effect immediately. The bill to end license suspensions for unpaid parking tickets statewide, meanwhile, won’t be taken up by the General Assembly until the veto session, which starts in October.

“I’ve been waiting for so long,” she told me. A few more months, fingers crossed, would be easy.

P.S. We’re thinking through ways to answer some of the questions I commonly get on ticketing and debt collection, in a format that’s easy to digest and share. We don’t know exactly what it should look like or how to ensure it gets to the folks who most need it. Do you have questions, ideas or suggestions? Please send them my way.

And thank you.

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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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