Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Friday a measure to stop the state's practice of suspending driver's licenses over most non-moving violations, like unpaid parking tickets.
The General Assembly passed the legislation, known as the "License to Work Act," with bipartisan support in late October. It will take effect on July 1.
"With this bipartisan legislation, Illinois now recognizes the fact that suspending licenses for having too many unpaid tickets or fines or fees doesn't necessarily make a person pay the bill, but it does mean the people who are suffering from this don't have a way to pay," Pritzker said, adding that the burden of debt and the old policy's harms "fall hardest on low-income communities of color."
"If you're living below or near the poverty line and you're looking at a choice between your unpaid parking tickets or your kid's medicine or your family's next meal, well, that's no choice at all," he added.
One person whose life was deeply impacted by the old policy was Rodney Shelton, of Chicago, who shared his emotional story at the bill signing Friday.
Shelton said he purchased a car from his grandmother that couldn't pass an emissions test - leaving him unable to register the vehicle, and thus unable to get a city sticker for it. He parked the car on a private lot but because it was not fenced in, he said he received a total of 77 tickets in 90 days.
"Being a city worker - I worked for the fire department, the driver's license is a condition of employment," Shelton said, adding that he was given 10 days to rectify the issue before his license was revoked.
"That 77 tickets initially was $9,000 and doubled to $18,000. So where am I going to get $18,000 in 10 days?" he asked. Shelton said a clerk at the city's Department of Revenue recommended that he declare bankruptcy in order to keep his license and ultimately, his job as a city employee.
"It's a domino effect," Shelton said.
"When I look at it, the neighborhood that I come from right here on the West Side of Chicago, West Garfield Park, most people aren't fortunate," he continued, trailing off and breaking down into tears before regaining his composure to continue speaking. "Most people aren't fortunate to fight like this. And this is for my people."
The new law also provides for the automatic reinstatement of the driver's licenses of more than 50,000 people whose licenses were suspended for unpaid tickets, fees or fines, Pritzker said.