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The unfair attack on fare evasion: Rather than pulling out all stops to collect every last dime from the indigent, the city should make it easier for low-income New Yorkers to ride subways and buses

Monday, August 29, 2016, 5:00 AM

A recent audit by New York State Controller Thomas DiNapoli faulted the cash-strapped MTA for failing to collect nearly half of the fines and fees associated with violations of transit rules, noting that the Authority “needs every dollar it can get to improve subway service.”

Importantly, 90% of these fines are the result of tickets for fare-evasion. The audit leaves unaddressed the larger question of whether public transit should be funded in this manner, on the backs of New Yorkers unable to afford the rising fares but still needing to move about the city for work or other appointments.

Likewise, the audit neglects to question whether fines, which increased to $100 in 2008, went unpaid because people who skip out on $2.75 might not be able to afford them.

Consider some recent clients at Brooklyn Defender Services:

Mr. M, an Army veteran, was stopped on his way to a job interview. Mr. W was homeless, and his shelter did not provide MetroCards. Mr. R was on his way to get his public assistance restored after an error by the Human Resources Administration resulted in a suspension of his benefits.

All of these individuals were arrested for fare evasion, detained overnight, and churned through the criminal arraignment process. All of them are black and indigent.

Every year, thousands of our clients are arrested for fare evasion and face immediate and lasting punishment. In fact, fare evasion was the top arrest charge in New York City last year, with 29,199 arrests and an additional 123,921 summonses — an average of 419 police interventions per day. Of those arrested, an overwhelming 92% were people of color.

Among the most common offenders were public school children arrested for using their reduced-fare student MetroCards off-hours, when they might be going to work, the library or a friend’s house.

Typically, officers hide inside subway stations in low-income communities of color or near courthouses and social service programs to catch turnstile jumpers. (Targeting stations near courthouses is particularly vicious, as many people are released from court with nothing — their wallets, purses and other property having been confiscated by the NYPD.)

People with ID’s and no history of fare evasion generally receive summonses. Fines that go unpaid result in arrest warrants, just some of the more than 1.4 million open warrants in New York City.

Those caught jumping the turnstile again, or without IDs, are often arrested. Approximately half of all fare evasion cases in criminal court result in convictions, and permanent criminal records — making it even harder to obtain or maintain a job, housing, legal immigration status or public benefits. For those who have warrants for unpaid fines, fare evasion arrests often lead to detention at Rikers Island, the horrors of which are well-documented.

New York City’s aggressive enforcement of fare evasion is extremely costly — to affected individuals and families, and to all of us as taxpayers. The Police Reform Organizing Project estimates the average cost of each misdemeanor prosecution in New York City to be $1,750. By that count, New York spent more than $51 million on fare evasion prosecutions in 2015. On top of that, it costs the city $460 a day to detain someone at Rikers Island.

What is far too little understood is that this enforcement is also self-defeating. According to a report by the Community Service Society and the Riders Alliance, 58% of very low-income New Yorkers rely on subways and buses — more than any other economic group — yet many cannot afford the rising costs of transit. In other words, fare evasion is increasingly an economic necessity for many New Yorkers. Contact with the criminal justice system only makes the poor poorer, and less able to afford the fare.

For many who can afford a MetroCard, the cost is still a hardship. A CSS-Riders Alliance survey found that the high cost of MetroCards prohibits many low-income New Yorkers from getting medical care and seeking jobs further from home.

The controller’s fixation on collecting fines is particularly disheartening in the wake of the U.S. Department of Justice report finding that Ferguson police targeted communities of color with aggressive enforcement to generate revenue.

It doesn’t have to be this way. New York City should reinvest the funds spent on aggressive enforcement and punishment to make public transit more affordable for low-income New Yorkers.

The police and district attorneys should stop arresting and prosecuting poor people to combat fare evasion, and rely on preventative measures instead. The city should then use the resulting savings to subsidize MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers and remove limitations on student cards, encouraging young people to pursue as many activities as possible.

Public transit should become the great equalizer in our city — not a feeder for the criminal justice system.

Schreibersdorf and Chausow are executive director and advocacy specialist at Brooklyn Defenders Services.

(Find the original op-ed here.)