Councilmember Allen remarks on overriding veto on fare evasion decriminalization

Below is a transcript from Councilmember Charles Allen's remarks from the dais ahead motioning for the Council to override a veto of the Fare Evasion Decriminalization Act of 2018:

"I want to speak for a minute about the Committee I chair – the Judiciary Committee. One of the agencies I like working with the most is the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, run by the incredible Dr. Roger Mitchell. In our respective roles, Dr. Mitchell and I both have to come at problems in similar ways. In his case, he has a body on his table, and his job is to determine the cause of death. It’s cancer, or it’s heart disease, or it’s homicide. And he can’t go back in time and eradicate the cancerous cell, or change that person’s diet, or take the gun away. But he can study the body and work with his colleagues in other agencies to change health outcomes so someone else won’t be lying on his table.

In this respect, the Judiciary Committee’s pretty similar. We respond to serious criminal justice challenges – challenges where everything has already gone wrong. We can’t turn back time. And somehow, we’re supposed to have the answers to failures of our education, health, human services, housing, economic development, and here, our transportation systems. So what do we do? We diagnose the problem and work with our partners on the front end. And that’s where we find ourselves today.

As I’ve been reflecting on our earlier conversations and the public discussion since, we’ve fully covered the devastating impact of overcriminalization in our city. We’ve reviewed the data clearly showing the bias and racial disparity in how fare evasion has been enforced in communities of color. We’ve debunked the myth that “no one gets arrested” for fare evasion alone. And we’ve outlined how decriminalization still allows Metro Transit Police to do their job – and create consequences for anyone trying to evade their fare.

We’ve asked and debated whether decriminalization of fare evasion was the right thing to do from a criminal justice perspective, and it absolutely is…but I think we need to also be asking if transportation is a public good to which all District residents are entitled, and if so, at what cost, and if we set the cost at a certain threshold, what should happen to those who can’t afford to ride?

Because if we view fare evasion not only through a criminal-versus-civil lens, but through a transit equity lens, we realize that the law on the books was created to respond to an economic problem, and we’ve been perpetuating criminalization based on the simple fact that many people in the District can’t afford this public good. We’ve become lost in the complexity of the issue; we don’t see it for what it is: some people are too poor to pay $2. And when you put it like that, it’s striking. We live in a city where some of our neighbors are too poor to pay $2. Why did we create a Kids Ride Free program? Because we recognized that not all kids can’t afford to go to school without a special SmarTrip card – and that’s no reason for them to be tardy and truant from school.

So instead of making our transit system equitable, we’ve imposed a criminal justice response on the problem. And then, to compound it, we’re saddling our neighbors with an arrest record – even if they pay the fine. We collectively are paying to have Metro Transit Police either issue them a criminal fine on the spot or arrest them, we then pay for the fare evader to go down to an MPD station and get fingerprinted and booked. Next, we pay for them to go to court if they contest the citation or don’t pay it. After that, we pay for the Office of the Attorney General to prosecute, we would pay Department of Corrections to lock them up for up to 10 days, and then our social service systems pay when they get out and can’t find a job or housing or financial aid due to their arrest (and maybe also conviction) record. All because they didn’t have $2.

All of this is what we, the city and community, pay today for fare evasion. This is completely separate from the life-long consequences the individual themselves pay, which we’ve reviewed in detail throughout this debate.

And of course we also hear and have heard arguments used against the bill that don’t deal with the core issue of the problem we’re trying to solve, like “Metro’s finances have to be protected”. I wholeheartedly agree – as does this Council, as we have approved and funded historic amounts of money for WMATA. We have to support WMATA. As a daily rider myself, I know I do. But as a region, the more we restrict hours, deprioritize capital investments, and disinvest in public transportation, we’re making affirmative decisions to dismantle the system. But, I’m not sure WMATA actually wants to solve the financial problem of fare evasion, because if they did, they’d look at their own data, which shows that even small investments in stations’ fare gate infrastructure dramatically stops fare evasion in its tracks.

Or take the argument that “lawlessness breeds lawlessness”. First of course, is that a statement like this isn’t even true – since decriminalization does not legalize fare evasion; no matter how desperately some people want you to believe this. But are we saying that every behavior we don’t like has to be criminalized, or else, “anarchy will ensue”? That line of “broken windows” thinking is an outright dismissal of what the evidence shows us, and it’s dangerous. It’s contributed to arrests of one in seven District residents in the past decade. DC cannot succeed if we continue the failed policies of the past at the expense of our residents’ futures. “Lawlessness breeds lawlessness” also isn’t even an argument against decriminalization, because our current criminal penalty for fare evasion has been on the books for more than forty years, and fare evasion certainly hasn’t gone away. So maintaining this penalty doesn’t say to fare evaders that we mean business. It says that we don’t know the answer to the problem, so let’s perpetuate the status quo no matter the cost.

What we’re doing, instead of creating an equitable transit system or actually reducing fare evasion, is trying to cure the side effects of our own lack of creativity. We’re approaching an economic problem with a criminal justice toolset. I hope that after we override the veto today we commit to work together, because the real work is going to require an honest and at times uncomfortable examination of how we got to where we are, what we can and can’t solve without partnerships, and whether we really take equity seriously.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I encourage my colleagues to join me in overriding the veto."

Remarks delivered during an Additional Legislative Meeting on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. 

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