The D.C. Council is considering legislation that would treat fare evasion like a parking ticket. (Fredrick Kunkle/The Washington Post)
Reporter

What does it cost to advertise a city’s virtue? We’ll find out next week when the D.C. Council could set the bidding at $25 million or more with a well-intentioned but misguided plan to decriminalize fare evasion on Metro.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who shepherded the virtue-signaling bill through the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said fare evasion would be treated like a parking ticket. Instead of facing possible arrest, a fine up to $300 and as many as 10 days in jail, a fare beater would be given a ticket and sent on his way.

Although Allen is vague about how these tickets would ultimately be enforced, he said the legislation’s aim is justice: Nobody should face the threat of jail over a $2 fare, particularly given that the D.C. law falls disproportionately on African Americans.

“Where I come from, it’s about, what is a fair and just system? And I think by changing this to a civil infraction, rather than a criminal infraction, you’re creating a more fair and just system,” Allen said in an interview.

If only it were that simple. The more likely outcome is that the measure will transform turnstile-jumping into a sport, deprive a beleaguered system of needed funding, and contribute to the feeling that anything goes on the city’s buses and trains. It also couldn’t come at a worse time, as Metro struggles with long-deferred maintenance needs and declining ridership.

Metro officials have voiced alarm about the proposal and accused its backers of using misinformation to make their case. In practice, the transit agency’s police mostly hand out $50 citations and warnings now, and only about 8 percent are arrested, almost always because of more serious charges, including outstanding warrants, agency officials said. Their chief concern is that decriminalizing fare evasion will, in effect, take an important tool out of law enforcement’s hands.

“We do believe that this is a matter of safety, most urgently,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

This is something the bill’s backers seem to misunderstand. The bill’s stated rationale blames the Metro Transit Police Department for entangling more and more District residents in the justice system in recent years “despite” a decrease in serious crimes in the transit system — which gets things exactly backward. Metro makes a persuasive argument that the decrease in crime has been a direct result of its crackdown on fare evasion.

This year alone, 377 people have been arrested following stops for fare evasion, all on charges ranging from outstanding warrants to drug-trafficking to attempted murder, Stessel said. He said several were carrying weapons.

“While not everyone who commits fare evasion commits other types of crimes, pretty much every serious crime that occurs on Metro starts with fare evasion. So when you address fare evasion, you drive down crime on Metro,” Stessel said.

Who knows what might have happened, for example, if a cop had arrested Darion Rivers, 18, and a teenager when they jumped the turnstiles on Monday before allegedly assaulting a blind passenger on the Red Line? Stessel said surveillance cameras show the suspects evading the fare. “It’s brazen,” he said.

Metro argues that by treating fare evasion like a parking ticket, the council would limit a police officer’s ability to act. Just as a motorist could refuse to obey a police officer who ordered him to stop on the street for not dropping a quarter in the parking meter, a fare evader could thumb his nose at a cop in a decriminalized world, Stessel said.

“That’s what we mean when we say it’s unenforceable. The officer can’t really take any action because you haven’t committed a crime,” Stessel said.

It’s also unclear what happens if a fare evader fails to pay up. It’s not like a parking scofflaw, whose vehicle could be towed or booted or, in some jurisdictions, denied new motor vehicle registration for failure to pay — all of which create incentives to pay the meter in the first place.

Asked about that, Allen said that most people pay the fare evasion fines now and that if they don’t, a remedy could be obtained through the courts, which could order the person to pay — which seems a little far-fetched in a city whose justice system is already overwhelmed trying to keep a lid on other things, such as the homicide rate.

Metro is not being hardhearted here. If the criminal penalties seem onerous, the council could tinker with only that section of the law, Metro officials said. If the council wants to help indigent people get around, lawmakers could create a subsidy program.

But the fight isn’t about jail time. In effect, the backers are trying to reclassify an intentional act of wrongdoing — a theft — as a kind of mistake.

“I can concede that there are not a whole lot of people that are having jail time for this. And that’s not what I’m trying to solve,” Allen said. “I’m trying to solve the criminal record. That arrest record — it stays with you for the rest of your life.”

Decriminalization supporters also raise the issue of “mass incarceration” and say fare evasion enforcement, which has been concentrated at Gallery Place and Anacostia, has targeted a disproportionate number of African Americans.

Metro officials counter that those two stops account for the highest volume overall of crimes, so they have a heavier police presence and enforcement of all kinds. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) was quoted in Washington City Paper making the point that homicide has also swept up disproportionate numbers of minorities but that no one has made the case that attacking that problem and its underlying causes in racism should be addressed by decriminalization.

Then there‘s the cost, which Metro says is already staggering and likely to get worse if the decriminalization bill passes.

Right now, fare evasion on buses and trains costs the system at least $25 million a year and maybe twice that. Last year, the agency gave bus drivers a way to tally each time an adult boarded without paying the fare, Stessel said. The drivers have recorded losses of $20 million so far this year and expect $5 million more before the year is over. Given that the subway accounts for a higher percentage of riders and higher fares than the buses, the agency estimates that the overall hit is much higher.

“We’re looking at something in excess of $50 million, with current enforcement measures in place, that Metro is losing,” Stessel said. “It’s really an invisible tax on Metro riders and everyone else in the region that’s depriving us all of better service.”

Consider that the money lost to fare evasion would more than cover the amount General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has proposed in the next fiscal year’s budget to expand service and win back riders. Metro’s partner jurisdictions might do the math on this, too, and wonder why they’re being asked for more money while D.C. is inviting people to ride for free.

Arlington, for example, has already felt the pinch from Metro’s new dedicated funding, with an overall budget gap of as much as $78 million next year that could require job cuts and tax increases, ARLnow.com reports. To balance things, perhaps Arlington could invite its commuters to skip paying fare on the way home from D.C. if the bill passes.

As well meaning as the bill might be, it’s not unlike trying to fight poverty by decriminalizing shoplifting — an analogy offered by skeptics such as council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who also chairs the Metro board.

Yet, the shoplifting comparison irks Allen. He argues that taking a $2 carton of milk from a store is different from evading a $2 fare because the milk is a product produced and sold by private companies for individual customers. A bus or train ride, however, is a public service that continues to operate regardless whether an individual person paid the fare.


Metro says fare evasion costs the system at least $25 million a year and maybe twice that — and officials say they have empirical data to prove it. (Fredrick Kunkle/The Washington Post)

It’s an interesting argument. It might even be fun to use with the IRS this April.

Allen also takes issue with Metro’s claim, saying officials have been “disingenuous” in claiming that the measure will undercut law enforcement and contribute to an atmosphere of lawlessness on the system.

“I realize it’s a convenient talking point for Metro, but it’s not true because there are consequences,” Allen said. “Metro police will be able to do the same exact thing — they will make the same stop. What changes is the consequence at the end of that stop.”

If Metro is serious about fighting fare evasion and recovering all that lost money, Allen said, the agency should spend the $6 million or so that it’s been estimated to cost to replace the subway’s rainbow-style gates with more-secure turnstiles.

“At the end of the day, this law is about what’s fair and just for the individual,” Allen said. “Do we believe a person should have a criminal record for the rest of their life over a $2 fare? I don’t think so.”

It’s an admirable sentiment — and society should do better at rehabilitating and welcoming back people who mess up — but maybe a little grandiose, too. The notion that treating fare evasion for what it is — a form of theft — is deeply unjust or that untold lives have been ruined by a turnstile-jumping arrest seems like an argument built on a viewing or two of “Les Misérables,” not reality. As wrong as Metro can be about some things, D.C. should give it the benefit of the doubt on this one.

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