Chicago Clerk Valencia releases report on fees

By Ted Cox, OneIllinois

Chicago might finally be ready for reform — when it comes to city fines and fees on parking tickets, city stickers, and the towing and impoundment of cars.

Clerk Anna Valencia released a new report Tuesday from the Chicago Fines, Fees and Access Collaborative, a panel including city department heads, community advocates, academic institutions, elected officials, and residents charged with reforming the often Draconian punishments for Chicagoans who often can’t afford them.

It was a key campaign issue for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who called the fees “regressive” and pointed out they often fell hardest on minority areas of Chicago where residents had the most difficulty in paying the penalties.

The report addresses that directly, stating: “The current structure of fines, fees, and penalties often hits low-income communities, as well as communities of color, the hardest. These communities often have to make a decision between whether to pay their tickets, or pay living expenses (such as rent or food).”

The reform panel has been meeting monthly since December, along with multiple public roundtable discussions, and it ultimately arrived at 14 proposed reforms, under four different categories.

On compliance, it recommended easing tickets on expired or absent car city stickers, including the reinstitution of a 15-day grace period for expired stickers, launching a debt-forgiveness program, easing payment plans, and eliminating employment barriers to enable people to earn money to pay the fines.

It also suggested re-examing longstanding practices, including late fees, winter parking restrictions, towing, ticketing, and street signs.

Along with better street signs, the panel suggested more public education and retraining front-line city staff dealing with the fines. And it suggested the creation of a new position of financial justice director, as well as regular assessments on racial equity.

Specifically, the panel suggested an end to the so-called Denver boot, stating: “A possible solution may include a cost-benefit analysis of the city’s private towing contracts and possibly ending the practice of booting and towing vehicles related to non-public-safety violations.”

Lightfoot endorsed the proposals. “I want to thank Clerk Valencia and her team for convening these recommendations on ways to improve existing policies and put an end to inequities in our city,” she said in a statement. “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 Chicagoan. We look forward to continuing to work with stakeholders and local leaders to ensure city government makes services more accessible and resources more equitable for all communities.”

Although the suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines got some attention in the General Assembly this spring, with a bill backed by Rep. Carol Ammons of Champaign-Urbana, the panel did not ultimately take a position on that, although it did grant that “driver’s license suspension is severe – it should only be used to stop dangerous driving. Not being able to pay or missing a hearing date is not about dangerous driving, it’s about poverty.”

Members of the collaborative included: Aldermen Jason Ervin, Roderick Sawyer, Michael Scott, and Gilbert Villegas, former Aldermen Ameya Pawar, Toni Foulkes, and Deb Mell, the departments of Law, Finance, Budget, Transportation, Family and Social Services, and the Police Department, as well as the Chicago Jobs Council, the Community Organization and Family Issues, the Fines & Fees Justice Center, the Financial Justice Project of San Francisco, the Heartland Alliance, the Loyola Center for Urban Research and Learning, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, and the Woodstock Institute.

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