David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

Early in my tenure on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Board, I was offered a strange explanation from transit police brass as to why there seemed to be wide concentrations of police enforcement of fare evasion in poor Black and Brown communities of the city. 

“We go where the crime is,” is what I was told at the time by the then ranking transit chief. The problem with that claim was that data on fare evasion arrests told a different story. Namely, that the enforcement policies of the NYPD punished poor New Yorkers of color in ways that did not appear to be driven by, or connected to, legitimate public safety concerns or criminal complaints. 

The Community Service Society of New York (CSS) would go on to produce a report based on an analysis of fare evasion data in Brooklyn showing that fare evasion arrest rates at stations located in Brownsville and East New York were considerably higher than at other Brooklyn subway stations located in areas with similar or even higher numbers of nearby criminal complaints, but which were not predominantly Black. In other words, high rates of farebeating arrests were not merely incidental to the deployment of police to high crime areas. It was intentional; part and parcel of a criminal punishment system condoning the over-policing and over-prosecution of low-income Black and Brown people that policymakers in New York and elsewhere are trying to address through measures like Clean Slate.  

Of course, discriminatory policing of poverty is nothing new. It was an inherent feature of the Giuliani administration’s “Broken Windows” policing. Unfortunately, we are still dealing with the perception of a causal link between violent crime and fare evasion that “Broken Windows” helped perpetuate. 

With last week’s release of its long-anticipated report on fare evasion, titled “Playing Fare”, the MTA took a quantum leap forward on fare evasion enforcement compared to only a few years ago, when 96 percent of all fare evasion arrests and summonses involved Blacks and Latinos. 

The report [Full Disclosure: I served on the panel that authored the report] estimates that fare evasion on the subways and buses will cost the authority around $535 million in revenue in fiscal year 2022. It also estimated that roughly 400,000 fare evaders enter the subway system each day, many of whom are then summoned to court and even arrested. 

Perhaps most notably, the report echoes CSS’s long-standing contention that fare evasion is largely a socioeconomic challenge and not one of criminal compulsion. To that end, the report makes several recommendations the city should embrace: expanding eligibility for the city’s `Fair Fares’ transit discount program to New York City residents with incomes up to 200 percent of poverty; streamlining the administrative processes for obtaining and renewing Fair Fares discount MetroCards; and increasing outreach and education efforts, especially in neighborhoods with high need, to increase awareness and enrollment in the program. 

But the report also calls for a major shift in enforcement strategies on its buses and subways emphasizing equity and efficiency. Whether the NYPD will embrace this new approach remains to be seen. 

As prior CSS research has shown, fare evasion arrests are more common at subway stations near high-poverty Black neighborhoods; and, that poverty alone does not explain racial disparities in fare evasion arrests. By committing to a strategy of equitable distribution of enforcement personnel, such that “The risk of a summons or arrest should be just as great for evasion on the Upper East Side as in East New York,” the report gives the public both hope and reason to expect less inequities in fare evasion enforcement in the near future. 

It makes sense that the MTA focus enforcement strategies away from aggressive punishments of fare evaders to a less punitive approach, implemented more by civilian personnel and less by police. Our police resources should be concentrated on combating violent crime and targeting repeat offenders who pose a serious threat to public safety.  

Instead of a summons or arrest, the report recommends that first time fare evaders be served with an official warning. CSS’s Unheard Third survey of low-income New Yorkers shows that one in three low-income NYC households have less than $100 in rainy day savings. To expect that someone who is trying to evade a $2.75 fare would somehow be able to pay the $100 fine is highly unrealistic.  Based on our survey, more than half – 56 percent – of New Yorkers favor punishments that do not involve paying a fine. Among those who favored alternatives to paying the fine, the most popular option was performing community service followed by meeting with a caseworker to determine eligibility for Fair Fares.

Fare evasion is a net loss for everyone involved – for the transit system and for its users. Through a combination of enforcement measures, fare adjustments, new faregate design and public outreach, the MTA has produced a fair and equitable plan for combating it. All stakeholders in the system should get on board.   

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years and a member of the MTA Board. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.

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