Well, Washington City Council has gone and done it — decriminalized Metro fare evasion. America now will be treated to an interesting social experiment. If it doesn’t go well, Virginia taxpayers will wind up picking up part of the tab.
The financially strapped Metro, which operates the mass transit bus and rail system for the Washington metropolitan area, is already losing $25 million a year from turnstyle jumping and other forms of non-payment. Metro officials worry that decriminalization could mean even bigger losses.
City council members counter that criminal enforcement, along with criminal penalties and jail terms, disproportionately impacts African-Americans. Ninety-one percent of citations and summonses were issued to blacks. “That is a problem,” Council member Robert C. White Jr. said, referring to the 91 percent figure. “I’m sad that’s Metro’s losing money, but I’m more sad about what’s happening to black people.”
The interesting question is whether fare evasion and lost revenue will increase. Evasion arrests, citations and warnings have surged in recent years, from 4,000 in 2013 to 15,000 by 2017, reports the Washington Post. Eighty percent of those losses occur in the District of Columbia.
“We have a big problem with fare evasion at Metro,” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, who also serves as Metro board chairman. “And when it is understood that you will just get a civil citation that is largely unenforceable, you have a higher incidence.”
Advocates of decriminalization have likened the nonpayment of fares to the nonpayment of parking tickets, which is a misdemeanor. If parking-ticket scofflaws don’t face criminal charges, why should turnstyle jumpers?
Advocates of criminal penalties and enforcement invoke the “broken windows” theory of policing, which contends that failure to punish small offenses emboldens criminal behavior and leads to worse offenses. Conversely, enforcing minor criminal offenses suppresses worse crimes.
Metro posits that increased enforcement against fare evasion has led to a reduction in more serious offenses, owing to the police presence and the proportion of fare evasion stops leading police to more severe offenders.
For example, the board argued, while 8 percent of fare evasion stops lead to arrests according to current figures, most of those arrests resulted not from the initial fare evasion charge but rather from existing warrants for other offenses — a further crime such as assault on a police officer, or failure to produce identification.
Bacon’s bottom line. The D.C. councilpersons raise a fair point: Why should fare skippers (mostly black) be treated so much worse than parking scofflaws (of undetermined racial composition)? Isn’t there a double standard at work? Here’s how I would respond.
First, nonpayment of parking citations doesn’t create an environment that leads to other crimes. Failure to crack down on turnstyle jumping, by contrast, contributes to a sense of lawlessness in the D.C. subway system that encourages other forms of criminal behavior.
Second, revenue lost from turnstyle jumpers is only part of the fiscal equation. If lawlessness increases — more pickpocketing, more robbery, more assaults — many law-abiding Metro passengers will stop riding the rails. A small increase in lawlessness could spark a large change in behavior, especially among risk-averse riders such as women and the elderly. Thus a doubling of fare evasion, should it occur, could quadruple or quintiple the revenue losses if we account for lost ridership. Remember, ridership has been declining in recent years due to safety, scheduling and riding-experience concerns. Lawlessness could accelerate the trend.
Of course, this is all speculation. We won’t know the result until the new policy is implemented.
Here’s the rub. While Washington City Council conducts its social experiment, Washington shares the fiscal pain of lost revenue with Virginia and Maryland. Should revenues decline, Metro will be faced with a choice of cutting back operations, deferring maintenance, or going to the state and local governments whose population it serves and asking for more money. Washington City Council has put Virginia taxpayers and Metro riders at risk.There are currently no comments highlighted.