Just how egre­gious is Metro fare eva­sion?

De­crim­i­nal­iz­ing the prac­tice may not be the right move.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

THE EX­EC­U­TIVE lead­er­ship of Metro’s tran­sit au­thor­ity has writ­ten a let­ter to the D.C. Coun­cil ex­press­ing its con­cerns about a pro­posal to de­crim­i­nal­ize fare eva­sion. Those wor­ries — about the po­ten­tial harm to Metro’s ef­forts to re­duce fare eva­sion and the im­pact on Metro finances, as well as on the safety of cus­tomers and em­ploy­ees — should not be shrugged off. In­stead of rush­ing the mea­sure to a fi­nal vote, the coun­cil should probe more deeply and be guided by fact and rea­son, rather than the hy­per­bole that has shaped much of the de­bate.

The coun­cil is set Tues­day to take a sec­ond and fi­nal vote on a bill that would change the law so that rid­ing Metro­rail or Metrobus with­out pay­ing would be a civil of­fense that in­curs a fine; cur­rently it is a crime pun­ish­able by a fine of not more than $300 or im­pris­on­ment of not more than 10 days. We don’t for a minute think any­one should be ar­rested, hauled off to jail and sad­dled with a crim­i­nal record for jump­ing a fare gate or by­pass­ing a bus fare box. But is that re­ally hap­pen­ing?

Metro says no, and even the data from ad­vo­cates for de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion show that the vast ma­jor­ity of those stopped for fare eva­sion — 92 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Metro — re­ceive a warn­ing or ci­ta­tion. Ju­ve­niles only re­ceive warn­ing no­tices for fare eva­sion. The fine is typ­i­cally $50; while fail­ure to pay could re­sult in an ar­rest war­rant, again, it’s ques­tion­able that re­ally oc­curs. Metro says it doesn’t seek war­rants for non­pay­ment of fines — which go to the ju­ris­dic­tions and not Metro — and it doesn’t ap­pear the of­fice of the D.C. at­tor­ney gen­eral does, ei­ther.

There is no ques­tion that Metro in re­cent years has greatly stepped up en­force­ment of fare eva­sion, and with lost an­nual rev­enue es­ti­mated in the tens of mil­lions of dol­lars, that’s only fair to the Metro cus­tomers who do pay their way. Metro of­fi­cials also con­tend that be­ing able to stop peo­ple for fare eva­sion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion checks is an im­por­tant tool in keep­ing the sys­tem safe.

We don’t dis­count the con­cerns that African Amer­i­cans are dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected. But if Metro po­lice are un­fairly tar­get­ing African Amer­i­cans — and it is not clear that is the case — this bill doesn’t ad­dress that prob­lem. Metro has sug­gested elim­i­nat­ing jail as a pos­si­ble penalty in the statute, and said it is will­ing to work with the city in set­ting up a new pro­gram to pro­vide sub­si­dized fare cards to low-in­come res­i­dents. It also has of­fered its as­sur­ance that no ar­rests solely for fare eva­sion will be made by tran­sit po­lice.

De­crim­i­nal­iz­ing fare eva­sion, which es­sen­tially amounts to theft from the tran­sit sys­tem, sends the sig­nal that fail­ing to pay to ride the bus or rail is not a se­ri­ous in­frac­tion; that could lead to more prob­lems. We urge the coun­cil to work with Metro in ad­dress­ing its con­cerns.

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