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I’ve Reported on How Chicago’s Ticketing System Has Hurt Black Residents. Now, the Conversation About Reform Is Changing.

The killing of George Floyd by police has sparked a reexamination of other systems in this country that are also weighted against Black people. Ticketing is one of them.

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Hi readers.

There are stories you report that you’re never quite done with. You tell yourself, “This is the last time I’m ever going to write about X, Y or Z,” and then a week later news happens or you get a fascinating tip and you are sucked back in.

That is what’s happened to me again and again since we published our first story in February 2018 on how Chicago’s punitive ticketing and debt collection system was sending tens of thousands of residents in predominantly Black neighborhoods into bankruptcy. I wound up reporting dozens more stories, including some longer investigative pieces with my friend Elliott Ramos, the data editor at WBEZ, as well as shorter stories on reforms triggered by our reporting.

Finally, I figured I was really done thinking about tickets when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation in January that ended driver’s license suspensions over parking ticket debt. But that hasn’t been entirely the case. And to be honest, that’s a good thing because it means more reforms may be coming to a system that still needs repair.

In fact, there may be a greater opportunity for reforms now than ever before, given the national conversation we’re all having on policing and racism, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. This awakening has caused a reexamination, through the lens of equity, of other systems in this country that are also weighted against Black people. Ticketing is one of those systems.

I want to share some of the recent dialogue I’ve been paying attention to and update you on some coming (or possible!) reforms:

1. A Chicago alderman whose car was covered in anti-racist signage tweeted about getting ticketed by police on Juneteenth, and he got into a tense back-and-forth about ticketing with another alderman.

It all started when Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez of the 25th Ward, which includes Pilsen, complained about getting $300 worth of tickets in 15 minutes in Alderman Brendan Reilly’s 42nd Ward downtown.

Sigcho-Lopez noted that it was Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery, and that his Toyota Prius was covered in #BlackLivesMatter and anti-racist signage. He noted, too, that it had been city police officers who issued the tickets, which we know is relatively rare in that ward because many tickets issued downtown are handed out by private contractors. (See the app we released in December 2018, The Ticket Trap, to compare what portion of tickets are issued by police with those handed out by civilian parking enforcement attendants, by ward. Reilly’s 42nd Ward has the second-smallest percentage of tickets issued by police.)

Reilly responded in part by telling Sigcho-Lopez to follow the law or seek an administrative hearing if he thought he was unfairly ticketed. Sigcho-Lopez said he would, and added, “For many Chicagoans who work multiple jobs or do not speak the language, the process is inaccessible & a pipeline into poverty.” That’s a point I’ve made repeatedly over the past few years (see what was probably my first real Twitter thread) and fleshed out when we built The Ticket Trap: Tickets issued in majority Latino wards are rarely contested compared with tickets issued elsewhere. To learn more about ticketing practices and consequences in Chicago, check out the app.

2. Mayor Lori Lightfoot last week unveiled a comprehensive plan to reform Chicago’s broken towing and impound program.

The mayor’s proposal most significantly would affect individuals whose vehicles were impounded as part of arrests by police. It would slash impound fines and fees; cap storage fees, which previously could rise into the tens of thousands of dollars; and end the impoundment of vehicles when the owner was not present at the time of an alleged crime. (The city is currently facing a federal lawsuit over its lack of a so-called “innocent owner” defense.) Lightfoot’s legislation would also end the impoundment of vehicles following arrests for driving with a suspended license, when the license was suspended over unpaid parking or automated traffic camera tickets, or in cases involving cannabis possession.

The proposed reforms address problems highlighted in a number of investigations into the impound program, including Elliott’s work at WBEZ, this 2018 report by C.J. Ciaramella at Reason and our reporting here at ProPublica Illinois, in addition to the lawsuit.

“It is critical that we take this step to help residents that for far too long have suffered at a disproportional impact from an outdated program that too frequently resulted in thousands of dollars in fines and loss of personal property,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “While we take this step today, we also realize that there is still work to be done and will remain diligent in our approach to build a fairer, more equitable Chicago.”

3. Finally, that state law I mentioned that ends license suspensions over unpaid parking tickets goes into effect Wednesday, July 1.

But it turns out that the Illinois secretary of state, over the past few months, had already rescinded the parking ticket suspensions of all 74,999 drivers who’d been impacted across Illinois. Brenda Glahn, a senior legal adviser for the agency, told me some of those drivers may have additional types of suspensions on their records, but she was unable to say how many. Drivers were sent a notice of rescission to the last address on their driver’s license, but Glahn cautioned that some licenses may have expired during the suspensions. In those cases, she added, drivers can visit a secretary of state facility to renew their licenses. If the license has been expired for more than a year, drivers must retake vision, written and road exams.

Once I heard this, I called Stephen Carpenter, a 38-year-old Chicago resident who lost his license more than two years ago over unpaid parking tickets he’d accrued in the southwest suburb of Palos Hills. He calls me every few weeks, anxiety in his voice, to ask whether the state law really will go into effect, if the coronavirus pandemic will slow it down, if somehow we both misread the language in the law. He hadn’t gotten the notice yet, so I was delighted to tell him the news. “It’s like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” said Carpenter, who had been contemplating whether to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy to recover his driving privileges sooner.

And on that happy note, I’ll end this newsletter. As always, please let me know if you have any tips or questions. I can be reached at [email protected].

Thank you for reading and please stay safe.

Melissa

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