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EDITORIAL: Let’s dig deeper before going easier on ticket scofflaws

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

It’s not surprising, sadly, that a new study found racial disparities in vehicle ticketing in Chicago.

The Woodstock Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, tells us a lot of the “what.” But it has left us pondering the “why,” and we want to know more.

Woodstock analyzed tickets issued to Chicago drivers in 2017 and found evidence of racial disparities that should trouble all of us, if we care about fairness and equity.

EDITORIAL

Drivers from lower-income neighborhoods, and from neighborhoods of color, were 40 percent more likely to be ticketed than drivers from higher-income and white neighborhoods. They also were more likely to rack up debt from unpaid tickets, have their driver’s license suspended for non-payment, and file for bankruptcy because of crushing ticket debt — a phenomenon ProPublica reported on earlier this year. 

People who can least afford it are paying most of the ticket fines that now comprise 7 percent of the city’s budget.

We sure aren’t eager to pay higher taxes. But we don’t think squeezing fines out of low-income folks is a fair or sensible way to shore up a budget.

That said, before urging City Hall to “go easier” on ticket scofflaws, as Woodstock is calling for, we’d like to know this: Are police issuing tickets more aggressively in Englewood and South Chicago, say, than in Lincoln Park or Ravenswood?

Or are there simply more missing city stickers and speeding drivers on the South and West sides of town?

Woodstock admits it didn’t dig deep enough to answer that question. “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,” Lauren Nolan, Woodstock’s director of research, told the Sun-Times.

The city ought to pick up where Woodstock left off and analyze that “foot-level data.” And don’t stop with parking and speeding tickets. 

WBEZ found that drivers and property owners in just a few black neighborhoods were more likely to be hit with weather-related tickets for infractions such as failing to shovel snow or to observe weather-related parking bans. And the Chicago Tribune found that the vast majority of biking tickets in 2017 were issued to cyclists in black communities.

If cops and other city enforcers are issuing tickets more aggressively in low-income black neighborhoods while going easy on white communities, that has to stop. Chicago can’t turn a blind eye to violations in Ravenswood and then hand out tickets for the same behavior in Woodlawn.

Across-the-board equal enforcement is critical, especially with speeding violations that can easily lead to serious, even fatal, accidents. And in fact, speed limit enforcement is especially important in black communities.

Just take a look at data from Vision Zero, the city’s plan to reduce deaths and serious injuries from car crashes. Vision Zero found that black Chicagoans are twice as likely to die in a car crash than white Chicagoans, and that Chicagoans living in economically distressed communities die in car crashes more often than residents in more well-off neighborhoods.

So maybe those speeding and red-light camera tickets are perfectly justified in a lot of black neighborhoods, given a legitimate goal: curbing the incidence of serious crashes.

While we think it’s appropriate to take some steps to lift the burden of onerous ticket debt, let’s also get real here: The law is the law. Economics alone is not enough reason to invalidate legitimate tickets, or to slack up on handing them out when warranted. Personal responsibility has to kick in, too.

Some of Woodstock’s recommendations seem reasonable to us. Others don’t.

We agree that drivers shouldn’t have their license suspended for non-moving violations. We also favor allowing any driver a waiver for a first-time violation. And we think the city should look at making its repayment plan more lenient for people of limited means, and consider writing off old ticket debt.

But we oppose community service instead of ticket payment; that sounds too much like indentured servitude for low-income folks to us. We also oppose income-based, ability-to-pay determinations. Who needs another bureaucracy to figure out all this who-can-pay-what?

We don’t want to see people overburdened by ticket debt.

But when you get a ticket, fair and square: Pay up.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.