City urged to go easy on scofflaws after study shows minorities bear the brunt

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Tickets were 40 percent more likely to be issued to drivers from lower-income areas than to motorists who live in higher-income neighborhoods. | Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was urged Thursday to go easier on parking and vehicle ticket scofflaws after a new report showed the city’s get-tough enforcement policies were having a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities.

In a report appropriately called, “The Debt Spiral,” the Woodstock Institute examined 3.6 million vehicle-related tickets issued by the city in 2017.

Those tickets included: 273,000 issued by red-light cameras; 250,000 by speed cameras; 187,000 sticker violations; 175,000 tickets for expired meters; 162,000 for expired license plates or temporary registrations and 144,000 for street cleaning violations.

Results of the ZIP code-based study were not all that surprising, but troubling nevertheless.

Tickets were 40 percent more likely to be issued to drivers from low-and-moderate income areas than to motorists who live in higher-income neighborhoods. The same 40 percent disparity existed for drivers from predominantly minority neighborhoods.

Motorists from low- and moderate-income and minority neighborhoods also were more likely to have their driver’s licenses suspended; more prone to let their tickets go unpaid, triggering hefty penalties, and 50 percent more likely to be driven into bankruptcy.

“That’s pretty damning. That’s a pretty large disparity,” said Lauren Nolan, director of research for the Woodstock Institute.

“It’s hard to tell without analyzing foot-level data of where they’re deploying staff whether it’s people not complying or the way they enforce it. But the hammer is coming down particularly hard in lower-income areas on these compliance-type tickets.”

Low and moderate-income ZIP codes make up 43 percent of the city, but have 54 percent of all speed cameras and 50 percent of all red-light cameras, the study showed.

“Where the city decides to place cameras has a disparate impact on low-income populations. … You’re more apt to get a speed ticket or a red-light ticket if you’re driving through that area than if you’re driving through areas that don’t have those cameras,” Nolan said.

Whatever the reason for the disparity, the findings clearly show that the city’s “punitive” debt collection policies are unfairly squeezing those who can least afford it and need to be relaxed, Nolan said.

She’s urging the city to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for non-moving violations such as parking tickets and expired city stickers and offer motorists the option of paying off their debts with community service, instead of fines.

Chicago was also urged to: offer more generous payments plans; follow New York City’s lead by imposing an eight-year statute-of-limitations on old tickets; adopt a San Francisco-style “fix-it” option to fines, and stop requiring city job applicants to pay off their outstanding city debts.

“We need to stop spiraling people into debt over these tickets. License suspensions were originally designed to deal with problematic driving — somebody who’s an unsafe driver or has something like a DUI,” Nolan said.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing license suspension being used to enforce other things like parking tickets. That’s particularly problematic because, if you don’t have a license and you can’t get to work and earn money, how are you ever gonna pay off these tickets?”

Budget Director Samantha Fields could not be reached for comment on the Woodstock Institute’s report or suggestions for more lenient city policies.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, could not be reached.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, said City Hall clearly needs to lighten up on motorists even though fines have become an increasingly important source of revenue for the city.

“If you don’t have the money in the first 21 days and the fine doubles, what makes you think you’re gonna have double the amount on the 22nd day. That’s very unfair,” Villegas said.

“The simple fact that we’ve outsourced this and we have these collection agencies … pursuing these people very aggressively, then trying to put them on payment plans. We’re chasing the money and not dealing with it in a compassionate way makes the city look real greedy.”

Villegas said he particularly likes the idea of offering community service as an alternative to escalating penalties and stopping driver’s license suspensions.

“If people can’t get to work, then they’re at the risk of getting greater charges if they get caught without license,” he said.

“We have to be compassionate and work with these folks.”

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