Criminal justice advocates gathered outside City Hall this morning to call on Mayor de Blasio to fund discount transit fares for poor New Yorkers.
Chanting “Mr. Mayor, swipe us in!” representatives from public defender organizations and community groups across the city recounted the human toll of the thousands of arrests made each year for fare evasion.
More than 5,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for fare evasion on the city’s subways so far this year, according to Community Service Society President David Jones, an MTA board member and originator of the “Fair Fares” proposal. From 2008 to 2013, 37,500 people received jail time for fare evasion. Of the people arrested, 90 percent were people of color.
“I got 30 days for jumping the turnstile,” said VOCAL-NY peer educator Kenneth Mack. “It’s over $1,100 a night to house an inmate overnight on Rikers Island. So you do the math: $1,100 times 30 — it’s not right.”
“I see it every day as a public defender: Hundreds of people being criminalized because they didn’t have the fare to get on the train,” said Bronx criminal defense attorney Jodi Morales.
Over the last year, the Riders Alliance and Community Service Society have built broad support for “Fair Fares.” The plan calls for providing the 800,000 New Yorkers living under the federal poverty line with half-priced MetroCards. The total cost to the city would be $212 million out of its $85 billion annual budget.
Commuting costs are one of the main drivers of poverty in the city, according to a report released yesterday by the mayor’s office [PDF]. Yet Mayor de Blasio has declined to fund the program, arguing that since the MTA is a state agency, the state should foot the bill.
While the state and Governor Cuomo do wield most of the power over MTA services and infrastructure, proponents of Fair Fares argue that it’s a social service program that should fall under the city’s purview. The city already funds discounted MetroCards for seniors and students and has policies to ensure middle-class transit commuters get tax benefits they’re entitled to.
And while transit fares are rising because Cuomo has failed to control the MTA’s escalating costs and mounting debt, it’s the city that has made fare evasion even costlier for people who can’t afford to pay, via its strict penalties.
“To live in a truly progressive city requires leadership that will stand up for those that need it the most,” said Myaisha Hayes, an organizer at the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice. “And right now, low income people of color — they’re the ones that have been suffering the most from the rising costs of our public transportation system, and they’re the ones who have been targeted disproportionately and arrested for fare-beating.”