No One in NYC Should Be Forced to Make These Choices

by Karume James, Staff Attorney in the Criminal Defense Practice at The Bronx Defenders

Among the many "broken windows" cases we get at The Bronx Defenders, I've always found arrests for turnstile jumping particularly outrageous and counterproductive. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the South Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the country - almost 38% of its residents live under the poverty line, and the percentage is even higher for children. For many low-income New Yorkers, choosing between a meal and a MetroCard, risking arrest for jumping a turnstile or missing work, are daily dilemmas.

The #FairFares campaign, a new initiative led by the Community Service Society (CSS) and the Riders Alliance, seeks to lessen this burden for the more than 800,000 New Yorkers for whom transit expenses exceed 10% of the family budget. The campaign launched in April with the release of a major report on the transit affordability crisis in New York City. It asks Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito to help establish a program that would allow low-income New Yorkers to purchase MetroCards at reduced rates. For our clients at The Bronx Defenders, such a program would be life-changing.

The CSS report highlights that the City's transit affordability crisis is "particularly pronounced in areas of the Bronx and Queens with large concentrations of low-income [Blacks and] Latinos, where transit fare burdens can reinforce the economic and geographic isolation of some of the most economically disadvantaged families." The situation is even worse in over-policed communities like the South Bronx, where people often get arrested for fare evasion (instead of receiving a civil summons) and thus face a criminal charge.

According to an investigation by the New York Daily News, between 2008 and 2013 "nearly 37,500 people [received] sentences for fare evasion that involved time behind bars . . . and 1,802 of those people were minors." It makes me both sad and angry to think how many of our clients would have avoided arrest if only they had been able to afford a MetroCard. The City is spending a lot of money prosecuting thousands of turnstile arrests. These are regular people trying to get to work, college, medical appointments, and take care of their kids. Wouldn't it make more sense to provide low-income New Yorkers access to affordable transportation instead of arresting them?

A turnstile arrest exacerbates the financial strains that lead to fare evasion in the first place, creating a downward spiral for the most economically marginalized New Yorkers. After getting arrested, a person must come to court to either challenge their case or accept a plea deal. Showing up in court often means losing a day's wages, finding a babysitter, missing important medical and public-benefits appointments, and - you guessed it - having to buy a MetroCard you still cannot afford.

If you accept the plea bargain to a misdemeanor charge for "theft of services" or "trespassing," you will have a criminal record. This will limit your access to stable employment, certain public benefits, student loans, public housing, and countless other services and opportunities. You will also have to pay a mandatory court fee of $250 - 90 times the amount you allegedly "stole" from the City by jumping the turnstile. This is not a well-calibrated or effective deterrent. Instead, such costs serve as an ineffective, hidden punishment that exacerbates the economic struggles that lead to fare evasion. Even for legitimate turnstile jump cases, the consequences far outweigh the offense.

What if you plead not guilty? I once represented an African-American Bronx resident who was arrested for fare evasion after an MTA attendant told him to enter through the emergency exit because the turnstile was not reading his MetroCard. He was stopped by two officers the moment he walked through the exit. My client tried to explain the situation to the police, and asked them to speak with the nearby attendant. The officers ignored his request and arrested him. When I heard his story, I was floored. I would not have believed that someone could be arrested for a transportation infraction that was likely due to a mechanical failure.

Challenging a case like this is particularly daunting in the Bronx, where court delay is endemic. It could drag on for months or even years, requiring people to travel to court again and again as their cases are endlessly adjourned. Missing a single court date can spell disaster: the judge will issue a warrant for your arrest and a team of police officers (the "warrant squad") will be dispatched to find you. Reduced-fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers would lessen the burden for the thousands of Bronx residents trapped in systemic court delay.

The #FairFares campaign seeks the kind of smart, practical policy change our City needs to begin addressing the entrenched and interrelated problems of poverty, insufficient access to transportation, and over-policing of communities of color. The Mayor and City Council should move this forward quickly and make #FairFares a reality.