Hundreds of protesters evaded fares on the New York MTA this weekend in protest of an increase in enforcement officers tasked to arrest fare evaders. Videos of violent encounters between the police and people attempting to hop turnstiles in subway stations sparked the massive unrest on Saturday.
A court ruled in September that the state must release more data relating to the race of all arrestees for fare evasion. In other cities such as Washington, D.C. where similar data has been collected, the trends were generally unattractive and led to decriminalization and policies aimed at less uneven enforcement.
Although it is not officially decriminalized in New York, the Manhattan District Attorney has chosen not to prosecute any fare evasion charges, but this does not do anything to prevent excessive arrests. The official decriminalization of the offense is essential because it firstly does not pose the potential of any physical harm during an arrest for such a minor offense, but also does not leave a mark on anyone’s criminal record.
Of course it is likely racially biased patterns in arrests are not because police consciously choose to arrest people of color more for evasion, but because the police presence is heavier in more diverse neighborhoods because of trends in crime, including fare evasion. Those trends are rooted in inequitable access to public transportation because of income inequality and reliance on the method because there is no way to fund any personal transportation,
In Boston, residents have been pushed to the outskirts of the city and into the suburbs where public transportation into the city for work is more costly than for those that live in the more expensive housing within city limits.
Demonizing fare evasion, which is likely the result of the inability to pay fares rather than pure rebellion, only further marginalizes a group that will have a hard time improving their own socioeconomic conditions. If they do not have reliable transportation in order to get a stable job and start paying fares, they will continue to avoid paying for subway rides.
A more effective system might mean offenders must pay $100 but that money will be transferred onto a pass that they can use to not have to avoid fares in the future. In this system, offenders are punished but instead of creating animosity toward a system they are already cheating, it encourages them to use public transportation and make a habit of paying fares.
If the goal of the criminal justice system is truly to prevent further crime, rather than solely to punish previous crime, they must adopt these kinds of constructive programs. A fine goes the same place the purchase of an MTA card does, which would promote more usage in the future.
Putting more money and resources to an increased police enforcement of an offense like fare evasion is a smack in the face to the pressing issues that need funding like the improvement of actual public transportation infrastructure and climate change or the opioid crisis.
Hopefully the protests this weekend sparked enough discourse to make real change in public transportation and makes fare evasion a socioeconomic dilemma, not a spike in crime.