How to Clean Up the “Hot Mess” That Is Chicago’s Ticketing and Debt Collection Practices — According to a City Task Force

Hello, again! How are you, Illinois? Let’s talk about tickets.

This week, a task force examining Chicago’s ticketing and debt collection practices released its recommendations for reform. The task force, officially called the Chicago Fines, Fees & Access Collaborative, is made up of aldermen, city department heads and community advocates. It was launched by City Clerk Anna Valencia in December 2018, sparked by our reporting with WBEZ Chicago that showed how the city’s ticketing and debt collection practices disproportionately affect low-income and black neighborhoods — an issue you should be fairly familiar with if you’ve been keeping up with these newsletters 😉.

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Overall, the task force “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,” my colleagues, ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez and WBEZ data reporter Elliott Ramos, wrote in a story this week. Right now, it’s more like a road map for the City Council — should it choose to introduce legislation.

“Things of this magnitude took eons to get to this hot mess, so we can’t be unrealistic and change things tomorrow …”

— Rosazlia Grillier, a parent leader from the nonprofit Community Organizing and Family Issues who was on the task force.

Still, here are some of the recommendations we’ll be keeping an eye on:

  1. Rolling back the $200 fine for not having a required city sticker on your vehicle.

    In July of last year, we reported that the city’s 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.

  2. Ending the automatic doubling of tickets when late and, instead, tying the cost of the ticket to a driver’s income.

    The $200 city sticker tickets can quickly rise to $488 with late penalties and fees. Our reporting shows how, for Chicago’s working poor, and particularly for African Americans, a single unpaid parking or automated traffic camera ticket can quickly spiral out of control and threaten their livelihoods.

  3. Allowing motorists who receive those tickets to pay a reduced rate of, say, $10 if they come into compliance by purchasing a vehicle sticker.

    Alderman Gilbert Villegas, of the Northwest Side’s 36th Ward, reintroduced legislation this week to reduce late penalties, give motorists more time to pay tickets and allow community service in place of some fines and penalties.

  4. Reforming the city’s payment plans by reducing down payments or basing them on motorists’ ability to pay.

    Reducing down payments for low-income motorists is also part of Villegas’ legislation. Right now, motorists with significant ticket debt must make a down payment of up to $1,000 to get on a payment plan, keep their vehicles from getting impounded or lift license suspensions.

  5. Examining Chicago’s massive vehicle impoundment program.

    A WBEZ Chicago investigation this year showed how Chicago sold tens of thousands of impounded vehicles to a private towing company for less than $200 each.

  6. Establishing a “Chicago Financial Justice Director Position: a position to coordinate efforts across City Departments and agencies, as well as serve as point person on issues pertaining to fines and fees reform.”

    In conversations we’ve had with people affected by this issue, many have expressed frustration with contesting tickets and navigating the various departments involved.

  7. Reviewing whether police should issue citations for non-moving violations.

    We analyzed more than 54 million parking, standing and vehicle compliance tickets issued since 1996. We found that police — rather than city parking enforcement aides or private contractors — issued most of these kinds of tickets in majority black wards. Search for ticket information about your ward in our app, The Ticket Trap.

    Also of note: Task force members said they couldn’t come to an agreement on what to do about license suspensions, one of the most controversial topics on this issue. As always, we’ll keep you posted on what we learn. And if you’re into this, please join our Facebook group, Driven Into Debt: Chicago Drivers Navigating Vehicle Ticket Troubles.

Until next week …

— Logan Jaffe

Engagement reporter, ProPublica Illinois

P.S. Did you know that Illinois is the opposite of Alabama? At least, that’s what one New York Times writer suggested in a piece this week examining America’s growing divisions, as most states are now under the control of a single political party. But maybe our states have more in common than it seems? Plenty of people agree that both Illinois and Alabama are among the most corrupt in the country … ha.

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