How Chicago Ticket Debt Sends Black Motorists Into Bankruptcy

Filing for bankruptcy to avoid car impoundments and or a boot that immobilizes their vehicle has become a popular “remedy” for Chicago drivers who can’t afford to pay off debt from traffic tickets, parking violations, and vehicle compliance infractions. In Chicago, a single ticket can cause an inescapable downward spiral for a low-income person. Illustrated by two residents who share their stories of how and why they resorted to filing bankruptcy because of their unpaid tickets, this article exposes the disproportionate amount of debt that burdens Chicago’s Black communities and explains how, in many cases, a Chicago driver’s ticket debt is only placed on hold, not resolved, by filing for bankruptcy.

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Key Findings
  • “In 2007, an estimated 1,000 Chapter 13 bankruptcies included debts to the city, usually for unpaid tickets, with the median amount claimed around $1,500 per case. By [2017], the number of cases surpassed 10,000, with the typical debt to the city around $3,900.”
  • Revenue from “tickets brought in nearly $264 million in 2016, or about 7 percent of [Chicago’s] $3.6 billion operating budget.”
  • “Eight of the 10 ZIP codes with the most accumulated ticket debt per adult are majority Black.”
  • After 10 defaulted parking tickets or five unpaid traffic camera tickets, the city of Chicago can suspend a person’s driver’s license.
  • Motorists with ticket debt who are not on a payment plan or in bankruptcy are not eligible for municipal employment.
Melissa Sanchez, Sandhya Kambhampati, ProPublica Illinois