This op-ed originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Illinois, quit suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid parking tickets

By Ben Ruddell and Brian Costin
During a routine 2008 traffic stop in Chicago, LaSheria’s life was permanently changed. After being stopped, she learned that her driver’s license was suspended for parking tickets received in 1999, and that the debt had grown to more than $2,500. After struggling for weeks to support her family without transportation to and from work, she filed bankruptcy, hoping to get her license back. But the bankruptcy plan did not clear her debt, which ballooned to nearly $8,000. Today, LaSheria is still making monthly payments to the City of Chicago because of parking violations received nearly 20 years ago.
Sadly, this is not an isolated case. There is a hidden crisis in Illinois: Each year, nearly 50,000 licenses are suspended because drivers cannot pay tickets, fines or fees, and for other reasons that have nothing to do with driving. These suspensions are not aimed at making our roads safer. Instead, they force people to choose between unemployment and the risk of going to jail for driving on a suspended license.
Eighty percent of Illinoisans drive to work, and many employers require a driver’s license. When a person’s license is suspended, they are at risk of losing their job — one study of drivers in New Jersey showed that happened more than 40 percent of the time. License suspensions also punish families, because people need to drive to get their kids to school, buy food and access health care. When a person must choose between meeting their family’s needs and paying a fine to the government, they prioritize their family.
We also know that license suspensions as a result of unpaid tickets disproportionately hurt low-income and minority communities. A Woodstock Institute study of enforcement patterns in Illinois’ largest city shows that tickets are far more likely to be issued to residents of Chicago’s lowest-income areas, and to those who live in ZIP codes with the highest proportion of minority residents. The report also determined that drivers living in lower-income and minority ZIP codes were twice as likely as other drivers to have unpaid tickets resulting in a license suspension.
This year, Illinois legislators have a chance to rectify this injustice. The License to Work Act, sponsored by state Rep. Carol Ammons of Urbana and state Sen. Omar Aquino of Chicago, would eliminate driver’s license suspensions as a penalty for unpaid tickets and most other non-moving violations. It is crucial that our representatives in Springfield pass this legislation as soon as possible.
Governments can hold people accountable without taking away their ability to make a living. The majority of states collect overdue parking fines without relying on license suspension. In recent years, large cities like San Francisco have discovered that that when they take people’s financial circumstances into consideration and lower the threshold of entry to overdue ticket payment plans, more people enroll and the cities collect more revenue overall.
Illinois cities can follow their lead and reduce the taxpayer resources being wasted in vain efforts to collect money from people who can’t pay. The License to Work Act would keep Illinoisans on the road so they can continue to work and support their families.
While the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity might not always see eye to eye on matters of policy, we can agree that it makes no sense to take away a person’s ability to drive and earn a living for reasons that have nothing to do with keeping our roads safe — especially the inability to pay a fine. This is why nearly 50 organizations have also signed on in support to help break the cycle of debt that affects so many across our state.
Illinois legislators should vote for the License to Work Act and allow drivers across the state to get back to work.
Ben Ruddell is an attorney with the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Brian Costin is deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity-Illinois.