Image by Jennifer used with permission.

In July 2017, the Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act was introduced before the DC Council with the support of 9 out of 13 councilmembers. This legislation would decriminalize fare evasion on public transportation in the District.

In recent weeks, the fare evasion issue has drawn renewed attention, following the brutal arrest of a young mother and the start of Metro’s new policy banning negative balances. Here’s what’s in the fare evasion decriminalization bill, and what Metro and activists who support the bill are saying.

Metro is cracking down on fare evasion; the decriminalization act would lower the maximum penalty to $100

Currently, under DC’s Act to Regulate Public Conduct on Public Passenger Vehicles, fare evasion is “punishable by a fine of not more than $300, by imprisonment for not more than 10 days, or both.” The Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act would change that law by removing the criminal penalty and reducing the fine to a maximum of $100. Because this is DC legislation, it would only apply to fare evasion in DC, and would not alter the fare evasion policies in Virginia or Maryland.

At the start of 2017, amid concerns that fare evasion resulted in a $25 million revenue loss annually, Metro began stricter enforcement of fare evasion violations. From January to June 2017, the number of tickets issued for fare evasion more than doubled from the same period in 2016. There were nearly 6,000 citations, 8 percent of which resulted in arrest.

Metro argued that stricter enforcement of fare evasion laws would increase safety, citing crime data showing that 23 percent of attacks on bus operators by riders were tied to disputes over fares. Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik cited arrests of fare evaders with open warrants as evidence that the policy benefits public safety.

Last year, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld defended the fare evasion crackdown, calling it a “fairness issue, across the entire community.” But some see the current fare evasion policy as anything but fair. The Save Our System Coalition, which is backed by the transit union-funded activist group Americans for Transit, is supporting the Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act. Save Our System disputed WMATA’s characterization of fare evasion arrests, arguing that these policies disproportionately target low-income people of color.

Activists and DC councilmembers say the current policy has a disproportionate racial impact

At the September 28, 2017 WMATA public board meeting, Save Our System members said that they had witnessed Metro Transit Police using excessive use of force against young people of color. One rider said that she had witnessed several officers at the Gallery Place station pinning a young black man’s hands behind his back and pepper spraying him several times in the face, while another organizer said that she had witnessed officers “threatening to hit kids with their batons and to arrest kids because they were not moving down the stairs at the pace officers would have liked.”

Some DC councilmembers agree that disproportionate fare evasion enforcement against people of color is common. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who was one of the eight councilmembers who introduced the decriminalization bill, admitted to being a repeat offender. He pointed out that people who look like him — white and wearing suits — are not targeted for fare evasion violations. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, who also introduced the bill, said that people arrested for fare evasion tend to be young people from economically disadvantaged communities, and that Ward 8 residents would be better served by Metro Transit Police focusing on increasing safety rather than carrying out arrests for minor offenses like fare evasion.

Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

The threat of arrest is not the only way that Metro’s current fare evasion policy has a disproportionate impact on people of color. The current fare evasion fine of up to $300 is excessive for those already struggling to pay the base fare to go to work or to the grocery store. While the average net worth of a white household in the region is $284,000, that number is only $3,500 for the average black household.

Lowering the fine to $100 would better strike a balance between discouraging fare evasion and ensuring that those struggling to make ends meet will not fall further into poverty as a result of fare evasion policies. Centuries of racist and discriminatory policies have contributed to the racial wealth gap, and it’s only fair that we address the racial impacts of existing policies.

Despite more recent scrutiny, there has yet to be a vote on the decriminalization bill

Metro Transit Police fare evasion enforcement tactics have recently drawn even more scrutiny, following the arrest of a 20-year-old woman at a bus stop off of Alabama Ave Southeast earlier this month. The woman, a student at Ballou STAY High School, had boarded the W4 bus with her 1-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She had a DC One card which allowed her to ride for free, but it was not with her on the day of the arrest.

She suffered 12 stitches in her knee, a busted face including injuries around her mouth and four broken teeth, and a fractured knee after a Metro Transit Police officer slammed her face to the ground and arrested her for fare evasion and resisting arrest. The case has been cited by Save Our System as an example of why Metro fare evasion policies need to be reformed.

Metro’s decision to eliminate negative balances last month has also led to a renewed sense of urgency among activists regarding the fare evasion decriminalization bill. On January 8, the day the policy took effect, No Justice No Pride and Black Lives Matter DC, which are members of the Save Our System Coalition, handed out SmarTrip cards at the Anacostia station. These groups argued that eliminating negative fare balances while fare boxes only accept cash would lead to more disputes between riders and law enforcement, threatening the safety of low-income people of color. Expect the impacts of the new no negative balance policy to play a role in the fare decriminalization debate.

So far, the fare evasion decriminalization bill has yet to receive a vote, though a public hearing was held on October 19, 2017. With renewed attention to the issue and campaign season in full swing, that may soon change.