MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

D.C. City Council To Decriminalize Fare Evasion on City Buses and Trains

The idea of decriminalizing fare evasion pits civil liberties advocates against the needs of a (partially) user-funded transit system.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/NewscomTom Williams/CQ Roll Call/NewscomToday, the District of Columbia City Council is expected vote on a bill that would decriminalize fare evasion on the city's buses and trains. The measure is likely to pass, which means people who ride the bus or train system without paying can be cited for a civil infraction and fined $50, but can no longer be subjected to arrest, 10 days in jail, or fines of up to $300 simply for evading a fare.

The city's transit agency—the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA, or simply Metro)—argues the change will only encourage already-rampant fare evasion. Civil rights groups counter that the current penalties are unjust, and enforced in a racially-discriminatory manner. In this rare instance, everybody's a little bit right.

Using data provided by WMATA, the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs reported in September that 91 percent of people stopped for fare evasion were black, and that 30 percent of fare evasion stops took place at just two stations with large numbers of black riders: Anacostia in Southeast D.C. and Gallery Place in the city center. (D.C.'s Metro system has some 91 stations.) Supporters of the bill have argued that enforcement of the current law disproportionately affects black people and are an example of over-criminalization.

"The criminalization of minor, unwanted conduct is significantly more harmful than the failure to pay a $2 fare," argued Councilmember Charles Allen (D–Ward 6), who chairs the council's Judiciary Committee. "Fare evasion do not pose a threat to public safety—and criminalizing such offenses in fact makes communities less safe and erodes trust in law enforcement," said Nassim Moshiree, policy director of the D.C. ACLU, in an October statement.

Metro, meanwhile, claims the system cannot afford not to punish fare evaders. The agency says its bus system alone loses $25 million annually as a result of fare evasion, and Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans (who also sits on the D.C. City Council) estimates an equivalent amount is lost to fare evasion on its rail system, for a total of $50 million lost annually. Metro also claims that the current penalties aren't that punitive, and that 92 percent of fair evasion stops result in only a fine or warning; while the 8 percent of fair evasion stops that result in an arrest are often the result of a suspected fair evader having an open warrant, committing a further offense while being stopped, or refusing to provide identification.

"Decriminalizing fare evasion in the District would be unfair to the overwhelming majority of Metro riders, including those of limited means, who pay their fares," reads a letter from Metro's executive board to the D.C. City Council. "Any increase in fare evasion as a result of a change in law in the District would create additional requirements for subsidy increases or fare hikes."

Critics of decriminalization are right to point out that fair evasion is a form of theft, and civil libertarians are right to note that treating fare evasion like we would any other theft disproportionately affects D.C.'s low-income residents and contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and petty criminality. But the current system is not working. As with most criminal behaviors, it's highly unlikely that fair evaders understand current penalties chapter and verse. That most fair evaders are not stopped at all, or are often let off with just a warning, perpetuates the confusion around the seriousness of the offense.

What's more, Metro says it almost never arrests anyone now for actually evading fares (only for having open warrants or some other offense), so it's not clear how decriminalization puts the agency in a worse enforcement position. Metro officials have said that they might not be able to conduct background checks on those they are detaining for fare evasion if it's only a civil infraction.

Ultimately, I think a lot of this dilemma would be solved by making Metro stations a lot more secure. It is incredibly easy to vault Metro's rainbow-style turnstiles or simply walk though unlocked (and often unwatched) emergency gates. Full-height turnstiles and more closely guarded emergency gates would help to reduce fare evasion. Buses are a more difficult animal to tackle, but San Francisco's transit agency has had some success reducing fare evasion on its buses by creating off-board payment options.

Getting rid of the jail sentence, developing a system for collecting on fines, and making it a harder offense to commit in the first place seems like the best way to balance civil liberties concerns with the needs of a (partially) user-fee funded transit system.

The decriminalization bill, initially introduced by Councilmember Trayon White (D–Ward 8) in July 2017, has the support of 11 of 13 D.C. city councilmembers. A final vote is needed to send the bill to the mayor's desk for signing.

Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Juice||

    Since when has a fare been $2?

  • Rat on a train||

    MetroBus and off-peak MetroRail

  • John||

    Fare evasion is a fancy way of saying theft. If you don't pay, you are stealing the services. Even the strictest Libertarian should agree that theft is a proper subject of criminal law.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Aren't you always stealing from us, John, by spending your time on this site during work hours, rather than working to earn your tax-funded salary?

  • Bubba Jones||

    No. He is resisting the system.

  • John||

    Ultimately, I think a lot of this dilemma would be solved by making Metro stations a lot more secure. It is incredibly easy to vault Metro's rainbow-style turnstiles or simply walk though unlocked (and often unwatched) emergency gates.

    So the way to deal with theft is to use some of the fares paid by honest people to prevent thieves from stealing rather than spend those fares somewhere else and just arrest theives and thus deter the thieves? I don't think so.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    Well yes that is the way to deal with theft. Walmart doesn't pay for all those cameras and anti theft devices on the backs of thieves but by Walmart customers who actually pay for the products.

    And please no one pays for actual cost of a fare so they aren't honest customers but welfare queens every last one of them (hyberbollically speaking that is).

    But yes this is bullshit but so is the Metro. They need to sell it off and let a private company run it.

  • steve sturm||

    Since it's not fair to prosecute the people breaking the law, let's build barricades that deter people from breaking the law. Now, where have I heard those arguments elsewhere?

    I can't recall Reason calling for barricades to be built elsewhere, I guess they've rationalized it in a way that lets them think they're consistent.

  • BigT||

    Barricades for me, but not for thee!

  • JoeBlow123||

    In Japan there are no crazy mechanisms to get people to pay, just a gate where you wave a credit card like thing over a reader to pay which then opens a flimsy plastic gate. In Germany there are no gates at all, it is just an honor system to pay!

    What do both of these countries have in common? Their populations are not filled to the brim with dirtbags. We now have dirtbags in DC city government erecting laws to further enable dirtbags to act like dirtbags. I suppose one day we will be surprised at the results of this continual moral decay.

  • Juice||

    Enforced in racist manner or committed in a racist manner?

  • John||

    If black people commit a crime more than whites, the only solution is to declare the activity to be lawful.

  • soldiermedic76||

    African Americans make up the majority of the city, and because of flight to the suburbs of upper class and middle class AA, those left are predominantly lower class. They also make up the largest percentage of people using mass transit, and the two areas with the greatest problem with fare evasion are in predominantly lower class African American communities. So is the number of arrests being predominantly AA demonstrate racism or a reflection of mass transit usage?
    The majority of people arrested in most states for poaching are white, and the majority of hunters are white, is this proof that game wardens are racist against whites?

  • BigT||

    Yes, and yes, you racist!

  • Eddy||

    Fare-evaders vote like anyone else - be the councilman who stops them from being arrested and you're more likely to get their votes.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The idea of user-funded transit systems is a joke. Even in cities where fare evasion is "criminalized" few ever see any consequences. A good friend of mine was a Metro bus driver. They were actually trained to not do anything if someone didn't pay the fare, and just smile and say, "Thank you for riding Metro". So essentially, everyone could ride for free.

    I believe that if you're going to have a transit system and not criminalize or even enforce fare payment, then just dump the whole fare system.

    I get this whole "let's not beat up on the poor" thing, but you can't have two sets of laws for people. so either you enforce it, or you don't. And when you don't, then the concept collapses.

  • Eddy||

    "So essentially, everyone could ride for free."

    Ratt would be so disappointed.

  • Fats of Fury||

    The fare for white men should be increased tenfold, Asian men fivefold, Women and blacks free. OBL would agree.

  • BigT||

    What of Native Americans, and S Pacific Islanders, you racist?

  • Robert||

    The Metro's system of fare collection is a civil liberties violation in itself: It holds you hostage until you pay. You pay to get out. Kidnapping! I haven't seen that elsewhere.

  • Rat on a train||

    Give them credit. They updated their exit policy to refund the fare if you exit from the same station within 15 minutes.

  • Rat on a train||

    D.C.'s Metro system has some 91 stations
    Approximately half are in DC. Stations outside DC will still be racist.

  • Untermensch den 2||

    So there is fare evasion, and sometimes it's fair evasion, and sometimes it's not fair evasion (I guess it is unfair evasion if you're white). I wish Britschgi wouldn't use those two homophonic terms (fare and fair), because now I'm confused, especially when both occur in one sentence.

    ;-)

  • BigT||

    Homophobe!

  • JoeBlow123||

    "and civil libertarians are right to note that treating fare evasion like we would any other theft disproportionately affects D.C.'s low-income residents and contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and petty criminality."

    That is not a civil libertarian argument, it is a progressive argument. "Self-perpetuating cycle" was the giveaway here for those taking notes.

    There is no such thing as a self perpetuating cycle. There are bad circumstances which are compounded by worse actions taken by individuals of their own volition. Own volition is the key concept here. No one is ever forced to skip fares or to refuse to educate themselves or to commit petty (or grand) crimes, those are acts of competent individuals making choices which have consequences.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online