Decriminalizing fare evasion continued in cities across America this year, building on the momentum that started last year. Activists have long charged that the punishments for fare evasion — often three-figure fines and a criminal record — didn’t fit the crime of skipping out on a $2 or $3 charge, that they disproportionately targeted low-income people of color, and that the way we approach fare evasion is vastly different from the way cities approach parking tickets or tollbooth revenue. Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for the New York-based Transit Center, told Governing that the goal of enforcing toll road fees is to make sure drivers pay, not to arrest them.
Accordingly, many cities in the U.S. have made moves toward decriminalizing the act of jumping a turnstile.
Portland’s TriMet introduced a new system in which people charged with fare evasion have 90 days to resolve their citation with the transit agency before it goes to court, the Portland Mercury wrote. Until 2017, some fare evaders were thrown in jail for the misdemeanor of “interfering with public transit.” District attorneys in three counties agreed in 2017 to stop prosecuting those crimes, but TriMet was still issuing citations, which could affect people’s ability to get a job or rent an apartment. The July 2018 change gives people 90 days to pay a fine, perform community service or enroll in a reduced-fare program, which would theoretically reduce the likelihood of future fare evasion. The agency also reduced the fine fare evaders must pay, at least for the first, second, and third offense. Previously, TriMet’s $175 fine for fare evasion was among the most expensive in the country, Next City’s Josh Cohen reported.
In Washington, D.C., the council also voted this month to decriminalize fare evasion on Metro, over the objections of its board and Mayor Muriel Bowser.
The new law reduces the maximum penalty to pay Metro fare from $300 to $50 and turns it from a crime to a civil citation. Metro says it generally does not arrest people for fare evasion alone, however, its own data show that many people are arrested for just fare evasion—over 30 in November 2018 alone. (The vast majority of fare evaders are, in fact, given a summons or citation, but not all.) And a number of high-profile incidents in which Metro police have treated suspected fare evaders with brutality made the issue even more urgent. Greater Greater Washington reports that members of Save Our System, which supported the bill, witnessed transit police pepper spraying young men and threatening to hit children with batons, while news reports earlier this year covered the story of transit police slamming a woman to the ground and breaking four of her teeth.
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights found that 91 percent of citations and summons were issued to black people, mostly adult men and youth under 25.
The D.C. bill passed with a veto-proof supermajority, Curbed DC reports, so unless Congress takes action before the bill’s 30-day review period passes, it becomes law in early 2019.
And in New York, this February, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. also announced his office will not prosecute fare evasion charges, Curbed NY reported. The MTA says that fare evasions spiked since that announcement (although the district attorneys of the other four boroughs have not changed their policies). So in December, NYC Transit president Andy Byford said that MTA would use “new tactics” to curb fare evasion, including having staffers and police physically block turnstiles and bus entrances to stop anyone from getting in without paying, the New York Post reported. Fare evasion will cost MTA $215 million this year, the paper said.
Orcutt, the Transit Center spokesperson, said he thinks the issue of decriminalizing fare evasion “is going to bubble up everywhere,” Governing said. In other words, the changes at these three cities may be just the beginning.
Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.