Chicago mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot released a new plan to address regressive fines, fees, and tickets on Monday. Chicago’s ticket system generates huge revenues for the city, but unfairly places this burden on low-income residents and people of color. In February 2018, WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois revealed that the city issued more than 3 million tickets in 2016, generating $264 million in ticket revenue. Community groups like COFI (Community Organizing and Family Issues) reported racial and ethnic profiling in ticketing, meaning that these burdens fall on communities of color already facing disinvestment.
“I grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, so I understand on a personal level how regressive fines and fees disproportionately impact Chicagoans who are already struggling to make ends meet,” said Lightfoot. “Chicagoans deserve a mayor who will stand up on this issue. We cannot balance the City budget on the backs of those least able to bear that burden. If elected mayor, I will pursue the following changes in our ticketing and fee policies.”
The plan includes the following policy changes:
Ban the boot: If someone fails to pay a vehicle fee or ticket, the City of Chicago may place a boot on the vehicle. Since 2011, Chicago has sold nearly 50,000 cars after the owner failed to pay the cost to remove the boot. This sort of punitive policy is wrong and counterproductive, as it makes it harder for the person to earn a paycheck if their car has been booted or sold. I will work with community groups and city officials to identify ways to curtail this practice, whether that means stopping the practice of booting cars for non-moving tickets, raising the threshold of when a car should be booted, or limiting the city’s ability to sell impounded cars.
Alleviate ticket burdens on low-income Chicagoans: To ease the financial burden, we must roll back the draconian “anti-scofflaw” laws. Right now, people who owe money to the city aren’t allowed to work for the city or as taxi or rideshare drivers. I would end this policy for people whose outstanding payments are below a certain threshold. We must also cap the exorbitant penalties that can accrue on unpaid tickets, and I will work with City Council to set a reasonable cap on penalties for unpaid tickets.
Eliminate racial disparities in traffic enforcement: We can longer ignore the documented existence of racial disparities in Chicago’s fines, fees and collection practices. The Chicago Fines, Fees & Access Collaborative is conducting an audit into these practices to further identify and address racial disparities in enforcement, and I will support this important effort. We must also work to stop the suspension of drivers’ licenses for non-moving violations, especially when those violations are unfairly applied.
Sunset the red light camera system: The red light camera program was sold to Chicagoans as a public safety solution, but it’s really been about revenue—and those fines fall disproportionately on people of color. I would conduct an audit of red light cameras to see where there are no longer safety issues and sunset those cameras that are only being used for revenue, not safety.
Implement “correctable violations”: In Chicago, a resident with a registration violation—such as an expired registration or city sticker—is subject to a fine. We can alleviate some of the burden associated with municipal fines by giving these residents the option to correct their violation, present proof to the appropriate agency, and either avoid the fine or pay a small fraction of the actual fine. Correctable violations give the city the flexibility to enforce its regulations without imposing onerous financial fines for every misstep.
Shift to a fairer, smarter revenue system: Although limiting some of the most onerous ticketing practices might reduce revenue in the short-term, the vast majority of issued tickets go unpaid, so these proposals can reduce taxpayer debts without immediately affecting revenues. Moreover, our regressive, extractive ticketing system has forced thousands of motorists of color into bankruptcy, which imposes its own costs on our city budget. I will work closely with the Department of Finance and community stakeholders to model the effect of these changes and to identify more progressive revenues to replace these monies.