The war on standards: fare-jumping edition

The City Council of Washington, D.C. has approved a measure decriminalizing fare evasion in its public transportation system. In D.C., “fare-jumping” will become a civil offense punishable only by a $50 fine.

The legislation was originally introduced by dumb-as-a-rock anti-Semite Trayon White. It passed by a vote of 10-2.

Fare-jumping is, of course, a form of theft. And not an innocuous form. The local transit authority loses more than $25 million a year due to fare evasion.

Reducing the penalty to a $50 fine with no possibility of arrest and/or jail time will mean even more lost revenue. The fine is light and unlikely to be collected in many cases. Jack Evans, chairman of the transit authority and one of the two city counsel members to vote against decriminalization, points out that unlike with parking tickets, where the city can block vehicle registration for unpaid citations, there is no good mechanism for mandating payment of a civil citation for fare-jumping.

What, then, is the argument for going so lightly on fare-jumpers? It’s a familiar one: Blacks disproportionately refuse to comply with the requirement of paying their fare.

A study by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs found that between January 2016 and February 2018, 91 percent of Metro Transit Police citations and summons for fare evasion were issued to African Americans. I can’t tell from news reports whether the study (to which there is no link) included a finding as to the percentage of trips taken by African Americans, but it almost certainly is well below 91 percent.

It’s sad that African-Americans make up such a large percentage of scofflaws in Washington D.C. However, it’s difficult to see why this fact justifies going soft on fare-jumping to the detriment of the financial viability of public transportation.

The Lawyer’s Committee said the locations where enforcement was most frequent — such as the Gallery Place and Anacostia stations — serve a high proportion of African Americans. The transportation authority countered that these stations are busier and higher crime areas that require increased enforcement.

In my experience, fare-jumping isn’t an issue at some stations. I’ve been using the Bethesda station (in Maryland) regularly for 30 years. I don’t recall seeing half a dozen cases of fare-jumping. For 13 years, I used the Dupont Circle station in D.C. daily. I can’t recall seeing dozen fare-jumpings there. It wouldn’t make sense to police these stations for fare-jumping, or other crimes, to the same degree as stations like Gallery Place and Anacostia.

Advocates for the legislation argue that the current criminal penalty, which can include arrest, a fine up to $300, and up to 10 days in jail is too draconian. In reality, though, only about 8 percent of fare evasion stops result in an arrest. Typically in these cases, the arrest is the result of the offender having an open warrant and/or a criminal record, or of committing another offense while being stopped.

Thus, there may be less to the new legislation than meets the eye. But that doesn’t make it inconsequential.

For one thing, the possibility of arrest and jail time is a deterrent. For another, the new law lowers the fine considerably.

Third, the ability to detain for a criminal violation enables law enforcement to determine whether the offender has a criminal record. If fare evasion is turned into a simple ticket, officials say they may not be able to do a background check on those they are detaining. In this regard, officials note that their enforcement blitz has corresponded to a 20 percent decrease in violent crime in the system during the past few years.

In addition to the concrete costs the new law will inflict on the transit system, and ultimately its riders, the legislation is insidious. Lowering standard and, in effect, laughing off what has always been deemed criminal behavior (in this case, outright theft) simply because one segment of the population refuses to comply is a recipe for societal decline.

At the low end of criminality spectrum, fare-jumping will now effectively be excused, at least in D.C. At the high end, there is a bipartisan push to grant significant leniency to major drug dealers, with racial disproportionality a major argument advanced in favor of this move.

What other crimes will we be asked to shrug our shoulders at, or go much easier on, in the name of racial equity?

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