Here’s how the city should fix its unfair ticketing policies, group says

By Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to reduce red-light cameras, eliminate the Denver boot for non-moving violations and bring equity to an overly-punitive ticketing policy that has unfairly targeted minority motorists and forced thousands into bankruptcy.

Now, she has a roadmap to do just that, courtesy of a task force spearheaded by City Clerk Anna Valencia that included city and elected officials, academics, advocates, non profits and everyday residents.

They’re making short- and long-term recommendations to Lightfoot that include:

• Overhauling the way the city punishes city sticker scofflaws by: reducing the $200 face value of the ticket and, perhaps, basing the fine on a motorist’s ability to pay; establishing a so-called “fix-it” ticket where motorists have a period of time to purchase a valid sticker before facing fines; and restoring the 15-day grace period.

• Lowering the bar for entering into a payment plan — either by reducing the down payment or by designing plans based on ability to pay. The city was also urged to expand the list of acceptable documents that are needed to qualify for a “hardship” payment plan.

• Re-evaluating the late-fee structure for parking tickets and all other tickets issued by the city and, perhaps, ending the punitive practice of doubling tickets for non-payment.

• Re-assessing sweeping winter and evening parking restrictions, including the overnight winter parking ban on more than 100 miles of arterial streets.

• Re-evaluating city towing and impoundment practices, including existing contracts.

• Conducting a comprehensive review of the city’s ticketing policies with an eye toward eliminating racial, economic and geographic disparities. Toward that end, Lightfoot was urged to appoint a “financial justice director” to oversee fine and fee reform. That’s on top of the chief equity officer she already has appointed.

• Eliminating the “employment barrier” that has prevented city scofflaws from being hired by the city or any other agency of local government.

Valencia has been under fire for presiding over an overly-punitive city sticker enforcement system that has driven thousands of motorists into bankruptcy while having a disproportionate impact on African-American motorists.

Last fall, she acknowledged that harsh penalties imposed after Mayor Rahm Emanuel increased city sticker fees in his first budget may have gone too far.

The appointed clerk, who subsequently ran unopposed in her first try for elective office, then persuaded the City Council to create a four-month city sticker, restore a 15-day grace period and offer a month-long amnesty.

She also promised to preside over a group that would re-examine “exorbitant” penalties to ease the burden on 500,000 delinquent motorists.

That’s the group that unveiled its recommendations Tuesday.

“The best policy is created by having those directly impacted at the table — and that’s exactly what we did. … These recommendations … are community-driven,” Valencia was quoted as saying in press release.

Lightfoot thanked the clerk whose job she has promised to eliminate for laying the groundwork to, as the mayor put it, “put an end to inequities” in the city’s punitive ticketing policies.

“It’s time we end our reliance on a system of regressive fines and fees by moving away from balancing budgets on the backs of our low-income residents and prioritize opportunity for every Chicagoans.”

Last year, a joint investigation by Pro Publica and WBEZ-FM Radio shined the spotlight on the punitive nature of sticker enforcement and racial disparities system in the ticketing system.

The investigation disclosed that only one in three sticker tickets issued during 2016 were paid within a year.

An analysis of tickets issued over a four-year period ending in 2015 showed that black neighborhoods were disproportionately targeted for sticker violations, with tickets issued by police driving the difference.

Meanwhile, sticker tickets issued to motorists in more affluent neighborhoods were more likely to be dismissed because they were more likely to or had the wherewithal to appeal.

After analyzing ticketing information since January 2007, Pro Publica and WBEZ also pinpointed nearly 20,000 incidents when the same vehicle was slapped with multiple sticker tickets on the same day.

The reforms recommended Tuesday mirror those made last summer by the Woodstock Institute after releasing a report that showed the city’s get-tough enforcement policies were having a disproportionate impact on low income and minorities communities.

At the time, the Woodstock Institute urged 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.

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