Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed a bill that decriminalizes fare evasion on the District’s Metro transit system. This is only the second time she’s taken such action. Her first veto was on an emergency bill that would have allowed high school seniors to graduate despite missing more than six weeks of class.
In a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Bowser says that decriminalization would encourage fare evaders and would only increase the estimated tens of millions per year in lost revenue.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who is also chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board of directors, used similar arguments while the Council debated the issue last year. Evans previously cited estimates from WMATA that the system loses between $25 million and $50 million per year due to fare evasion.
Ward 6 Coucnilmember Charles Allen, a supporter of the bill and chair of the judiciary committee, where the bill originated, says he will move to override the mayor’s veto, which would take nine votes. The bill ultimately passed last year 10-2 with Evans and Mendelson dissenting (Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie was absent.)
Currently, fare evaders can be arrested, face up to a $300 fine, and spend 10 days in jail. The bill would change fare evasion to a civil citation, like a parking ticket, and lower the fine to $50.
“Making fare evasion a civil fine—instead of a criminal charge that comes with a lifelong record—is the just and safe decision for the District and WMATA, and a supermajority of the Council agreed,” Allen says in an emailed statement. “We can’t succeed as a city if we continue the failed policies of the past at the expense of our residents’ futures. As the Chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety and a daily Metro rider, I see the real-life effects of putting DC residents unnecessarily into our criminal justice system every day. It means jobs lost, financial aid lost, housing lost, reputations lost, and potential lost.”
During the initial 40-minute debate on the bill back in November, councilmembers touched on racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system, heavy handed cops, over-criminalization, allegedly faulty statistics, white privilege and, briefly, marijuana to further their arguments.
Allen cited an analysis of WMATA data that showed 91 percent of the 20,000 criminal citations and summons issued for fare evasion from January 2016 to February 2018 were given to African-American people.
Rather than decriminalizing fare evasion, Bowser suggests in her letter that the Council should refine the District’s record sealing process.