Chicago Vehicle Ticketing Unfairly Burdens Low-income and Minority Communities

New Report Reveals Possible Racial, Geographic, or Economic Bias in Ticketing Practices


CHICAGO, IL – A new report released today by Woodstock Institute sheds light on the City of Chicago’s ticket issuance policies, namely the disparate impact they inflict on low-income and minority communities. The report, “The Debt Spiral: How Chicago’s Vehicle Ticketing Practices Unfairly Burden Low-Income and Minority Communities,” compares ticket issuance between drivers in low-income/non-low-income and minority/non-minority geographies and analyzes the consequences of unpaid ticket debt, which can include bankruptcy, barriers to employment, and driver’s license suspension. The report offers several policy recommendations, including an audit of Chicago ticketing enforcement practices to identify the existence of any geographic, racial, or economic bias.

The data, obtained from the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the following about Chicago drivers in 2017:

  • Tickets were 40 percent more likely to be issued to drivers from low- and moderate-income (LMI) zip codes than drivers from higher-income zip codes.
  • Tickets were 40 percent more likely to be issued to drivers from zip codes with a higher-than-average proportion of minority residents than drivers from non-minority zip codes.
  • Ticket recipients from LMI and minority zip codes were twice as likely as recipients in non-LMI and non-minority zip codes to file for bankruptcy.
  • Tickets issued to drivers from LMI and minority zip codes were more likely to go unpaid (and therefore accrue additional fines) than those issued to drivers from non-LMI and non-minority zip codes.
  • Drivers from LMI and minority zip codes were more likely to have their driver’s license suspended for failure to pay tickets than drivers from non-LMI and non-minority zip codes.

“Ticketing generates substantial income for the City of Chicago, but at what cost?” asks report author and Woodstock Institute Director of Research Lauren Nolan. “Punitively fining vulnerable Chicagoans and driving them into debt is not a just or sensible way to balance budgets.”

In addition to an audit of Chicago ticketing enforcement practices, Woodstock recommends policies including: an end to the practice of driver’s license suspensions for non-moving violations such as parking tickets; compliance opportunities that give the driver an opportunity to address the issue; affordable repayment plans; community service alternatives; ability-to-pay determinations (to reduce fine amounts); lowering fees for first-time and low-income offenders; write-offs and/or a statute of limitations for ticket debt; and, an end to employment prohibitions for those applying for public jobs.

This report is part of a national collaborative that includes Woodstock Institute, California Reinvestment Coalition, Reinvestment Partners, and Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, which seeks to quantify and analyze the impact of fines, fees, and debt collection practices on the most financially vulnerable. The collaborative’s work has been funded, in part, by the Ford Foundation. A four-part national report will be released next week.