On Saturday, January 25, 2020, Pilsen Neighbors Community Council (PNCC)—a Gamaliel affiliate in Chicago—hosted its second Driver’s License Reinstatement Expo at Malcolm X College with more than 2200 people in attendance. PNCC partnered with Chicago Bar Association, Malcolm X College, Cook County Public Defender, Illinois Secretary of State, Clerk of the Circuit Court, City of Chicago, North Lawndale Employment Network, and the City Clerk to assist individuals whose licenses have been revoked or suspended for violations such as failing to pay court fees, failing to submit a vehicle for emissions testing, unpaid parking tickets, driving without insurance, or failing to pay child support.
Alex Garcia, a leader in PNCC and a resident of the Pilsen Neighborhood, was a key organizer of this event and its predecessor (held in July 2019 during Fiesta del Sol). “Municipalities and jurisdictions around the country have become dependent on the revenue that comes from traffic violations or the ancillary fines and fees associated with these violations. While this impacts everyone in our community regardless of income, gender, or nationality, it disproportionately impacts folks of color in lower income neighborhoods. Driving is a benefit most of us take for granted—it’s how we transport our kids, get our groceries, go to work. For a low-income family, the $70.00 filing fee to reinstate a license could mean the difference between eating or paying a utility bill.”
The “addiction” to fees and fines was the subject of a report issued last year by Governing magazine. The report cites the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and “the issue of excessive fines and fees [that] gained national attention following the civil unrest” after his death and connects it to “reports that many St. Louis area municipalities prioritized generating revenues from their courts.” The report also points out that “rethinking fines and fees could further emerge as the next broad step in the criminal justice reform movement, with supporters ranging from the libertarian Koch brothers to the ACLU.”
Elected officials around the country are beginning to feel the pressure from community organizing networks (like Gamaliel), as well as community advocates, to address this critical issue. Only days before the PNCC-sponsored Expo at Malcolm X College, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law the “License to Work” Act which eliminates driver’s license suspensions for most moving violations. Annually in the State of Illinois, more than 50,000 licenses are suspended because drivers cannot afford to pay the ticket cost or the fines and fees associated with the ticket. The result is community members who face unemployment and/or mounting debt.
Sixty people actually had their licenses reinstated during the Expo; however, many more were placed on a pathway toward reinstatement. One individual, whose license had been suspended for 20 years, was reinstated on Monday following the Expo.
Garcia and PNCC are committed to hosting another Driver’s License Reinstatement Expo. “Our leaders are excited to know that they have made a long-term impact on the lives of the people in their community. We know that our work to build an unlikely coalition of partners will also result in future opportunities to address other critical issues of racial and economic inequity.”
Alex Garcia, PNCC (left), and Maryam Ahmad, Vice-President, Chicago Bar Association (right), pictured with the last Expo participant of the day.
In August 2019, Governing magazine published “Addicted to Fines,” a report on the pervasive use and impact of fines as revenue streams for municipalities and other jurisdictions.