Lightfoot administration waffles on ending driver’s license suspensions

Ticket fine reform is coming to Chicago, but one key measure requires state legislation.

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Photo by April Alonso

Ticket fine reform is coming to Chicago driven by research from community organizations, extensiveinvestigative reporting, lawsuits, and a task force led by City Clerk Anna Valencia.

But one key reform — ending driver’s license suspensions for non-moving violations — was blocked in Springfield last month by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned in support of the ban but now says she wants to consider it in a broader, “holistic” context.

The larger system, in which steep and rapidly accumulating fines — particularly for failure to purchase a city sticker — and predatory towing practices often seem to penalize people for being poor, certainly merits a clean sweep. Valencia’s recent report provides an impressive range of recommendations for removing barriers to compliance for low-income drivers.

A few of them are included in an ordinance sponsored by Ald. Gilbert Villegas, which would cap late fees, provide for dismissal of city sticker tickets once a driver buys a sticker, and reduce down payments required to enter payment plans, among other provisions.

Valencia’s task force goes further, recommending that the city review a range of policies and practices, including the city’s late fee structure and its towing and impoundment procedures. It also calls for a comprehensive review of the city’s ticketing policies that would include a racial equity assessment to address higher ticketing rates in minority communities and the practice of issuing multiple tickets for missing city stickers. This problem is concentrated in black and Latino communities.

According to advocates, city agency staff issue tickets at comparable rates in various neighborhoods, but tickets issued by police officers are heavily concentrated in minority areas. Valencia’s report recommends considering limiting police to issuing tickets for moving violations.

That’s all worth considering, and it will take time. Meanwhile, though, the issue of driver’s license suspensions has a great deal of urgency.

It’s been pushed for a couple of years by the Transit Table, a coalition of advocacy groups aimed at eliminating transportation barriers to employment, which says the practice “strips people of work opportunities” and “contributes unnecessarily to cycles of debt, poverty, and often leads to incarceration.” It was the top recommendation of a report on how Chicago’s ticketing policies unfairly burden minority communities by the Woodstock Institute last year.

It’s also the only part of the ticket reform agenda that requires state legislation. And it’s a statewide issue, which is why the License to Work Act attracted downstate and Republican support along with backing by the General Assembly’s Black and Latino Caucuses. The bill passed the State Senate and was set to pass the House when Lightfoot’s lobbyists came out against it.

“It was crazy for us, having the same lobbyists [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel had sent to kill [the bill in the previous session] turning up and working against it again,” said Eric Halvorson of the Chicago Jobs Council. “Is this Groundhog Day? Didn’t we just have an election where everybody said we need to change this?”

Lightfoot campaigned supporting ticket fine reform including an end to driver’s license suspensions for non-moving violations. But, according to Halvorson, her lobbyists said the city was specifically opposed to eliminating driver’s license suspensions for parking tickets. (A city spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

That’s interesting because Illinois is one of just a handful of states that suspends driver’s licenses for failure to pay parking tickets, Halvorson said. “In most American cities that authority doesn’t exist, and they collect fines,” he said.

Halvorson said he worries that finance department bureaucrats who view license suspensions as a valuable revenue collection tool may be dominating discussion of the issue at this point in the new administration.

He said states that have reformed their systems of fees and fines in order to make it easier for residents to comply have seen revenues increase. He sees eliminating driver’s license suspensions – which not only punish people who have trouble paying fees and fines, but often makes it impossible for them to do so – as a first step in that process. But it requires “opening up to the possibility of options that are better for communities and better for the city’s budget – if we are willing to let go of this tool,” he said.The Lightfoot administration has said it will work to find a compromise plan to bring to the General Assembly in the fall.