Chicago’s predatory tickets and fines exploit low-income drivers for revenue

Photo by April Alonso

All governments need money. But under Rahm Emanuel, Chicago stands out for jacking up fees and fines on low- and middle-income folks while doling out subsidies and tax breaks to well-connected developers and corporations.

That’s bad enough. It’s worse when the city’s revenue policies actually punish people for being poor and drive low-income families in communities of color into unemployment and bankruptcy.

That’s what’s happening, according to a raft of new research and reporting on Chicago’s punitive policies on parking tickets and similar vehicle-related fines.

Community Organizing and Family Issues surveyed low-income parents in Chicago and Illinois and found that among those living on less than $15,000 a year, 22 percent had outstanding ticket debt. Added to high levels of debt from student loans and medical and utility bills, this creates a constant financial crisis for many families.

COFI recommended the city conduct an assessment of the impact of all fees and fines on low-income families, make payment plans more accessible, and end the ban on city jobs and business licenses for people who owe municipal fees.

Chicago Jobs Council surveyed participants in employment programs and found that 52 percent of those with suspended driver’s licenses due to non-driving violations like parking tickets reported losing jobs or job opportunities as a result. More than half of those with suspended licenses said they only found out when they were pulled over by police—a situation where they can end up losing their car or going to jail.

Most license suspensions were debt-related, and some of the debts were huge, as a result of late fees and other penalties: 31 percent reported owing over $3,000. Respondents also said payment plans offered by Chicago and other municipalities were unaffordable. (Chicago’s payment plan requires a $1,000 down payment.)

The Woodstock Institute found a clear pattern of racial inequity: residents of lower-income and minority zip codes in Chicago were 40 percent more likely to be issued vehicle-related tickets, despite the fact that higher-income white communities have more cars and more commuters.

In 2017, the city issued $162 million in tickets and another $87 million in late fees. Late fees were on average twice as high in lower-income areas as elsewhere, and nearly three times as high in minority areas.

Fully 75 percent of license suspensions for failure to pay parking tickets and accumulated debt went to drivers in lower-income zip codes, and 78 percent went to drivers in minority zip codes.

In an intensive ongoing investigation, ProPublica Illinois found that the number of Chapter 13 bankruptcies in Chicago involving debt to the city, mostly for unpaid tickets, went up from 1,000 in 2007 to over 10,000 last year, as the city raised fines and late penalties and added traffic cameras. Experts say this situation is unique to Chicago: ticket-driven debt has caused the city to lead the nation in Chapter 13 bankruptcies, and African-American households are affected disproportionately.

The bankruptcies disproportionately involve “compliance violations” (as opposed to traffic infractions), with city sticker violations the largest source of ticket debt in Chicago.

Emanuel raised the fine for city sticker violations to $200 in 2012 in order to help fill a budget gap. City sticker tickets are now the least likely to get paid – no doubt because other common tickets cost much less. In 2013, Chicago started counting city sticker violations toward driver’s license suspensions, and now the city requests three times as many license suspensions from the state as it did in 2010.

Working with WBEZ, ProPublica Illinois recently reported that the city has ticketed thousands of cars for sticker violations multiple times on the same day, collecting millions of dollars even though the practice violates city ordinance. Duplicate city sticker tickets are far more common in African-American areas, they report, with 31 duplicate tickets per thousand households in Englewood, compared to three per thousand in Rogers Park.

That makes the city seem a little predatory.

But the whole system is predatory and punitive. Chicago’s city sticker is far more expensive than “wheel taxes” elsewhere, and our fines and penalties are higher too. Chicago is on the leading edge of a national trend—Ferguson is a smaller but notorious example—of exploiting public safety systems to raise revenue in ways that hit blacks and Latinos hardest.

Sure, there are scofflaws, people who park wherever they want and throw away the tickets.  But far more people are just struggling to get by and trying to stay out of trouble, get to work or find work, take care of their families and juggle their bills. It makes no sense to drive them into bankruptcy.

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Nor does it make sense to take away their licenses. Advocates argue that penalty should be reserved for unsafe drivers, individuals whose infractions are driving-related. As we’ve seen, license suspension often leads to unemployment, particularly in a city where jobs are concentrated far from the communities that need them. It makes no sense to make it harder for someone to work when you are trying to get money out of them.

And since most people with suspended licenses continue to drive, it can also mean incarceration, at even greater costs to individuals, their families and taxpayers.

A broad coalition of groups has backed a bill to eliminate driver’s license suspensions as a penalty for non-driving violations, and the groups negotiated with law enforcement representatives to win their support, said Eric Halvorson of the Chicago Jobs Council. Sheriff Tom Dart backed it, citing the waste of jailing people whose only real “crime” is lacking a city sticker. (Last year, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx stopped prosecuting individuals for driving without a license when the underlying violation was purely debt related.)

But the city fought the bill – even being called out by one of its sponsors for fighting it behind the scenes while taking a neutral stance publicly – and it remains in committee.

We can have accountability without driving residents into penury. We can limit driver’s license suspensions, we can lift bans on city employment, we can have city repayment plans that are affordable for the low-income people who need them, and we can revamp a fee structure that, as it stands right now, just takes from those who have the least to give. It’s common sense and it’s just humane.

  • Orlando coombs

    Get this Rahm Emanuel dude out of office, he running Chicago into the ground. Squeezing money from people who are already struggling to survive, that’s awful. No wonder blacks are leaving Chicago in droves.

  • jcwconsult

    Chicago, like many other cities, has NO problem concentrating punitive enforcement against many lower income residents or areas. Officials know those victims of punitive enforcement have less political clout than residents of upscale areas who can pressure officials to change policies. These problems will continue as long as the oppressed groups still keep voting for the oppressors like lemmings.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association