Guest Host: Kimberly Adams

A police officer issues a parking ticket.

A police officer issues a parking ticket.

Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was sworn in this week — inheriting a city with a lot of challenges to tackle.

One such challenge is the city’s reliance on excessive fines and fees to fund basic services. The system hinges on processes like ticketing and car seizures to generate revenue. Last month, the Institute for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit in Illinois state court “alleging that Chicago’s impound program violates residents’ guarantee of due process.” There are several other lawsuits and efforts underway to reform these practices.

In 2018, Reason investigated the breadth of this system. Here’s part of what they found:

In total, Chicago fined motorists more than $17 million between March 2017 and March of [2018] for 31 different types of offenses, ranging from DUI to having illegal fireworks in a car to playing music too loud, according to data from the Chicago Administrative Hearings Department. About $10 million of those fines were for driving on a suspended license, and more than $3 million were for drug offenses like the one that resulted in the impoundment of [Chicago resident Spencer Byrd’s] car.

The city says it is simply enforcing nuisance laws and cracking down on scofflaws. But community activists and civil liberties groups say the laws are predatory, burying guilty and innocent owners alike in debt, regardless of their ability to pay or the effect losing a vehicle will have on their lives.

“There’s plenty of reason to be concerned that there’s injustice being done to people who are mostly poor, people who aren’t in a position to fight back,” says Ben Ruddell, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois. “The city has been perpetuating an exploitative system, charging exorbitant fees in a way that it knows is likely to make it so folks never get their cars out of impoundment.”

Cash-strapped cities around the nation are increasingly using heavy fines to fund basic services — in turn, sending residents into debt and bankruptcy. Some groups are targeted more than others. A 2017 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that “harmful fines and fees practices are most common in communities of color and, to a lesser degree, in low-income communities.”

We talk about the nationwide fight over unfair fines and fees.

Show produced by Bianca Martin. Text by Kathryn Fink.


  • Elliott Ramos Data editor and reporter, WBEZ; @ChicagoEl
  • Lisa Foster Co-director, Fines & Fees Justice Center; retired California judge; served in Obama’s Department of Justice leading the department’s efforts to address fines and fees;@FinesandFeesJC
  • Diana Simpson Constitutional litigator, Institute for Justice; @DianaKSimpson

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