At a recent public hearing on a proposal to decriminalize fare evasion on Metro, D.C. Council member Charles Allen made a shocking admission.
Allen, chairman of the panel's judiciary committee, is a repeat offender.
"I can't tell you the number of times that I've tapped my card and it gave me the beep that said my balance had dropped below what the fare was," said Allen (D-Ward 6), a daily bus rider. "And the driver just said, 'Just fill it up when you get to the station.' "
"I've never once thought, 'I'm going to actually get a citation or have a criminal record for riding the bus,' " he said.
Allen's conclusion — that a business-suit-wearing white man would be an unlikely target of a fare-evasion sting — is part of the perspective propelling proposed legislation in the District that would decriminalize fare evasion, lowering the maximum possible fine to $100 from $300 and eliminating the possibility of jail time.
The D.C. Council's move mirrors a trend in cities across the country based on a growing awareness among lawmakers of how issues such as legacy policing practices, unconscious bias and systemic racism can unfairly target communities based on race or age — even in the seemingly mundane case of fare jumping.
Some legislators are questioning whether fare evasion should be a crime at all, arguing that targeted enforcement campaigns are bound to ensnare poor and low-income people who don't have the money to pay their fares — let alone fines.
"Absolutely there's been a raised consciousness on this that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago," said Nassim Moshiree, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia. "Activism like the Movement for Black Lives has had a positive impact on raising awareness that policing — and the explicit and implicit bias in policing — means that certain communities are impacted in unfair ways. Even when it comes to something like fare evasion."
Metro is in the midst of a crackdown on fare evasion, spurred partly by financial pressure and partly in response to heightened concerns about crime in the system. Nearly a quarter of assaults on bus operators, for example, result from disputes over fares.
From January to June of this year, the number of fare-evasion citations issued more than doubled from the year before, with almost 6,000 tickets issued in that six-month period. About 65 percent of those tickets were issued to rail users; 8 percent of the tickets resulted in an arrest, Metro said.
Metro does not get any of the money raised through the fines; those dollars are funneled to the corresponding jurisdictions where the tickets were issued. But the cash-strapped agency is worried about lost fare revenue. Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. estimated that the agency loses up to $25 million a year in unpaid fares — a hefty sum for an agency that just announced that it will seek a $29 million increase in the operating subsidies from the jurisdictions that fund it.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said he understands concerns about unfair targeting, but he also thinks that people across demographic boundaries feel a sense of injustice that some people flout the rules and ride free, while others dig deep to pay their fares.
"It's a fairness issue, across the entire community," Wiedefeld said. "You have people in those same communities that they're concerned about being targeted, who are paying their fares. And I think it's right that everybody pay their fare."
Still, despite Metro's assertions that the crackdown is systemwide, Pavlik said he does not track demographic data on those ticketed.
At a recent hearing, that council bill to decriminalize fare evasion seemed to have the support of several members — with Jack Evans, who also is Metro board chairman, the lone voice of opposition. For now, the proposal remains at the committee level, and Allen says he is mulling how to proceed.
Lawmakers nationwide have become increasingly aware of how citations or arrests for fare jumping can have disparate impacts on low-income riders and communities of color. For some groups, a simple citation or misdemeanor arrest can affect their job, parole or immigration status.
In 2015, Washington state passed a law decriminalizing fare evasion for minors, with officials expressing concern that such convictions would give teenagers criminal records and that it would be difficult for them to make it to court to challenge a citation.
A year later, California did the same thing — buoyed in part by the fact that, a decade earlier, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency decriminalized all fare- evasion offenses.
(San Francisco's change was prompted by concerns about the "confusing and cumbersome process" of court involvement with fare-evasion citations; agency officials said it was faster and more convenient for riders to pay their citations directly to the transit agency, without getting courts involved.)
Earlier this year, in Oregon, prosecutors vowed to quit pursuing charges against the majority of fare evaders on Portland's TriMet light-rail system, after a Portland State University study concluded that black riders were significantly more likely to be suspended from the system for repeat violations.
And in New York, two state lawmakers have offered legislation similar to the District's that would decriminalize fare evasion on public transit, turning it into a civil offense that would not affect a person's criminal record or immigration status.
That proposal gained traction last month when a New York advocacy group, the Community Service Society, released a report concluding that fare-evasion arrests happen more frequently at stations that abut low-income neighborhoods. In addition, the report said that half of all fare-evasion arrests in Brooklyn involve black men between the ages of 16 and 36, but they represent only 13.1 percent of poor adults.
Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for the New York-based advocacy group the Transit Center, says the increasing openness to decriminalization is "a cultural shift for the transit industry, which is a pretty conservative bunch nationally."
It's unclear whether decriminalization has led to more fare evasion. But transit administrators and lawmakers are beginning to recognize the costs of prosecuting the offense, Orcutt said, and considering whether it's better to focus their attention on strategies to encourage more ridership, such as switching to all-door bus boarding so that riders have faster commutes and spend less time at stops.
"It's a different approach. . . . People are learning from examples around the world, and not just taking the 'build a gate around the system' approach," Orcutt said.
And though transit operators argue that cracking down on fare evasion can help improve safety — catching riders who would flout other rules and engage in misbehavior — Orcutt said he questions the wisdom of transit adapting "broken windows" policies.
He compared it with the approach that modern-day urban planners have taken on homelessness in public spaces — a "nuisance" that some in the past would have considered a public-safety issue.
"We don't have fewer homeless people in the parks, but the parks are cleaned up, and there are lots of other people spending time there now, and it's changed the quality of the park very dramatically," Orcutt said. "The more attractive you make transit service, the less frequently those other problems come to the fore."