The Washington, D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety unanimously passed a measure to decriminalize fare evasion, or the failure to pay for metro travel, for Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority riders Oct. 4.
If approved by the full D.C. Council later this month, the bill will downgrade the penalty for Metro fare evasion from up to 10 days in jail and a $300 fine to a civil offense with no potential for criminality and a $50 fine. Under existing legislation enacted in 1978, fare evasion was considered a criminal offense if the resulting fine was not paid.
A large number of fare violations led WMATA to install extra security measures last year in the forms of new alarms and swing gates, according to an Oct. 4 WTOP article. Despite these measures, over 8,000 citations were issued this year alone, resulting in a loss of up to $25 million, according to the WTOP article.
If passed, the proposed legislation would exacerbate WMATA’s lost revenue, which indirectly affects riders who pay the fare, WMATA Manager of Media Relations Sherri Ly wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“Metro is strongly opposed to the decriminalization of fare evasion, as it is unfair to the overwhelming majority of riders who pay their fare every time,” Ly wrote. “It would create a huge budget hole with no meaningful enforcement mechanism, effectively legalizing theft.”
The proposed legislation comes after findings that enforcement of fare evasions has disproportionately affected African American youth in D.C., according to a Sept. 13 report by the Washington Lawyers Committee. Ninety-one percent of people issued summons for metro fare evasion were African American, according to the report.
In addition, MTPD has faced criticism for its treatment of fare evaders. Past fare evasion cases enforced by MTPD have involved pinning a woman to the ground and pepper spraying teenagers, according to DCist.
Only a small number of citations for fare evasion actually lead to arrests, according to Ly.
“The fact is the overwhelming majority of violators receive a citation, pay the fine and there is no criminal record. Only 8 percent result in arrests, and that’s usually for an open warrant or assault on a police officer,” Ly wrote. “In D.C., if an individual pays the fine, there is no criminal record, making many of the arguments made in support of this legislation moot.”
Council Member Trayon White, Sr. (D-Ward 8) originally introduced the bill in July 2017 because of harsh penalties for fare invasion in the district, around the same time WMATA upped its security measures.
Though nine out of 13 councilmembers had signed onto the measure at the time of its introduction, the bill only began to gain momentum when Chair of the Council Judiciary Committee, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), endorsed it.
D.C. should improve the level of support for low-income residents rather than reduce the penalty for fare evasion, Ly wrote.
“There are some who want to decriminalize fare evasion, they say, because ‘poverty is not a crime,’” Ly wrote. “We absolutely agree with that statement; however, the solution is for D.C. to create a program to support low-income residents, not to say we’re going to turn a blind eye to theft of service.”