jonetta rose barras: Advocating lawlessness in DC

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Some DC Council members, including Ward 6’s Charles Allen, have somehow come to believe that one of the best methods for assisting low-income and African-American residents in the city is to create an environment of lawlessness. Allen doesn’t share that view, of course. However, that’s the only conclusion I can reach from a council’s committee’s decision to approve the Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act of 2017, which would erect a legislative block to Metro’s effort to establish a code of conduct designed to protect the public and its workers.

Photo by Bruce McNeil

As approved by the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which is chaired by Allen, the Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act would eliminate any criminal penalties associated with not paying the fare on Metro. It also would reduce fines for other unlawful conduct: blasting those radios at high volume, smoking within the tight confines of a subway car or bus, and consuming food or drinks. (Yes, Metro is preparing to sell space to vendors, but that doesn’t mean it wants folks eating and drinking on its trains.) Regardless of whether an individual is engaging in theft of services or disruptive behavior, the bill would reduce all fines from as much as $300 to $50, providing a civil citation that would be nearly impossible to enforce.

“There seems to be this sentiment to decriminalize everything,” observed Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, who chairs the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s board of directors.

He’s right. In recent years, the council has decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and eliminated suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic tickets. It raises the question of whether there is a secret society of anarchists holed up in the John A. Wilson Building.

When Ward 8 Council member Trayon White introduced his fare-evasion decriminalization proposal last year, he said that “a significant number of young people and economically challenged residents … are being arrested for this minor offense. Criminalizing riders will not result in an equitable transit system.”

Did it occur to him that the best way to solve the problem is for folks to stop breaking the law?

I am not naïve. I understand that income inequality is a major economic and political issue in America. Pulling out Metro fare gates and boxes doesn’t rectify that situation, however; that action is a sure path to creating a Wild-West-style system that imperils the safety of passengers as well as Metro personnel, many of whom are already attacked by individuals who believe riding the subway or the bus is an inalienable right.

Sherri Ly, a spokesperson for Metro, called the evasion-decriminalization bill “unfair to the overwhelming majority of riders who pay their fare every time.” She said it could create “a multi-million-dollar budget hole with no meaningful enforcement mechanism for addressing theft of service.” Metro already loses $25 million annually to fare evasion; tack on another $15 million if the legislation is approved by the full council, according to Metro’s estimates.

My objection to the council’s action isn’t about money, though. I am appalled by the consistent message the legislature has sent over the past two years to young people in this city — the message that it’s OK to break the law with impunity. It’s a message, I think, that is built on what former President George W. Bush called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Allen suggested that he and the other committee members were motivated by concerns about unfairness. “Fare evasion enforcement is almost exclusively against black people,” said Allen. “The use of force by Metro Transit Police in making fare evasion arrests harms public trust in law enforcement, and the resulting arrests and convictions create lifelong barriers to jobs, housing and higher education.”

The facts don’t seem to back up that statement. According to Metro, “92 percent of persons stopped for fare evasion receive a citation or warning. In DC, if a violator pays the fine, there is no resulting criminal record.” Moreover, “only 8 percent of fare evasion stops result in an arrest, and that’s almost always for an open warrant, assault on a police officer, or some other more serious charge,” said Ly.

In 2017, according to Allen’s draft committee report, there were 1,428 fare evasion cases. In 958 of those, no charges were brought; 470 were “papered.” However, the prosecutor withdrew charges in 157 of those cases. In 112 cases, violators paid the fine, which meant there wasn’t an attending criminal record. And 49 individuals pleaded guilty; 25 cases were dismissed. Only one case was adjudicated.

Why then is Allen pushing through the fare evasion legislation? Is he engaged in the typical appeasement dance performed by politicians during election season?

I am not appeased. Truth be told, every law-abiding black person and every law-abiding low-income resident in DC should be offended. The committee’s action carries an underlying message that black people and poor people can’t be expected or trusted to follow the law. So, the best the government can do is to change the law to accommodate them.

I know poor: I grew up in the Desire Project in New Orleans; at that time, it was one of the worst public housing complexes in the country. My single mother worked two jobs. I have been African-American all my life. Those two realities — being poor and black — were never given by my mother, grandparents or anyone I knew as reasons for breaking the law.

If Allen and others worry that some DC residents can’t pay the fare, they might listen to Ly, who said Metro agrees that “poverty is not a crime (#povertyisnotacrime).”

However, she noted that when someone can’t afford food, the government gives them an “EBT card,” allowing them to eat and keep their dignity.

“We don’t tell them to just go ahead and shoplift; we won’t charge you with a crime,” Ly continued. “DC [could] create a program to support low-income riders.”

Who thinks that’s a better plan?


jonetta rose barras is a DC-based freelance writer and host of The Barras Report television show. She can be reached at thebarrasreport@gmail.com.

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