Poor New Yorkers are being criminalized for being short $2.75
New York, NY – A new report by the Community Service Society (CSS), “The Crime of Being Short $2.75: Policing Communities of Color at the Turnstile, finds that, in Brooklyn, arrests for fare evasion not only overwhelmingly involve young black men, but are highly concentrated at subway stations located in high-poverty black neighborhoods. While local area poverty levels and criminal complaints are related to fare evasion arrests, neither fully explain this racial disparity.
Authored by CSS experts Harold Stolper and Jeffrey Jones, the report examines fare evasion arrest data from the two public defender organizations operating in Brooklyn – The Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services. They warn that without concerted institutional change in the enforcement policies of the NYPD, the city will still engage and punish poor New Yorkers of color in ways that do not appear to be driven by legitimate public safety concerns, at a cost of millions of dollars per year.
“The city’s current approach to fare evasion by New Yorkers who lack $2.75 to cover the subway fare amounts to de facto criminalization of poverty,” said David R. Jones, President and CEO of Community Service Society. “This is not unique to New York City. Across the country cities from Seattle to Minneapolis are beginning to grapple with the fact that public transportation is being policed in a way that has a disproportionately adverse impact on poor communities of color. Instead of punitive policies that harm our most vulnerable citizens, and saddle young black and Latino men with criminal records, we should work to make public transit more affordable for all, including those living at or below poverty.”
"Arresting someone for fare evasion when they are trying to access services, seek employment, take their child to school or simply get around this City, is unjust and disproportionately targets black and brown people. An arrest and/or conviction could have immigration and other life altering and devastating consequences,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “The consequences for this essential crime of poverty are draconian and insensitive to the reality that people jump a turnstile out of complete necessity."
“This landmark report affirms what heavily-policed communities of color, public defenders, and others have been saying for many years: The fact that 92 percent of those arrested for fare evasion are people of color is not an accident. Broken Windows is an oppressive policing strategy built on thinly-veiled quotas that affirmatively target individuals solely due to the color of their skin. Police officers have leaked recordings of their supervisors berating them for not issuing enough fare evasion summonses to young ‘male Blacks’ and other officers have sued to stop the racially-biased quotas. Now, the City has more data to back up these accounts. Millions of dollars are wasted on enforcement actions against people who simply cannot afford to get to job interviews, school, or medical appointments. The City must finally end the discriminatory policing of poverty and reinvest the savings in making public transit more affordable to all New Yorkers,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services.
"This important study highlights how the city's prosecution of fare evasion as a crime has disproportionately impacted low-income, communities of color in Brooklyn,” said City Council Member Rory Lancman (District 24, Queens). “Not only is this overzealous enforcement of fare evasion unjust, but it unnecessarily runs thousands of people through the criminal justice system every year and puts immigrants at risk of deportation. My bill requiring the NYPD to report all fare evasion arrests and summons data quarterly will allow us to expand on the work done in this study, and show how this unfair enforcement impacts black and brown New Yorkers across the city."
“With this report, CSS shines a light on a serious injustice perpetrated against low-income New Yorkers and people of color,” said State Senator Jesse Hamilton (District 20, Brooklyn). “We are witnessing what happens when the destructive force of broken windows policing crashes into everyday New Yorkers’ basic need for transportation. This report should add further urgency to calls to pursue more humane, wiser, and more just approaches that help low-income New Yorkers get to work, get to that doctor’s appointment, or get to school without facing criminalization. Thanks to CSS for releasing this report. The legislation I authored with Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright decriminalizing fare evasion is critically important because it is on us, as policymakers, as advocates, and as justice-minded New Yorkers, to implement changes that stop this abuse.”
Highest Arrest Rates Found in Poor Black Communities
The CSS report analyses 2016 fare evasion arrest data (a Theft of Service charge under section 165.15(3) of the New York State Penal Code) across Brooklyn. It tracks fare evasion arrests, not civil summonses, because arrests can have lifelong consequences, including a criminal record that limits employment, housing, and higher education opportunities, and could put an immigrant at risk of deportation. The Brooklyn data paint a stark picture of racial inequality. Individuals arrested were overwhelmingly people of color: young black men (ages 16-36) represent half of all fare evasion arrests, but represent only 13.1 percent of poor adults.
This pattern was unfortunately not an anomaly: in the first three months of 2017, the NYPD arrested 4,600 people for fare evasion citywide, an overwhelming 90 percent of them black or Hispanic.
Focusing on arrests that could be linked to specific subway stations, the CSS authors examined the frequency of arrests and compared them with neighborhood demographics, poverty, and criminal complaints. Subway stations with the highest rate of fare evasion arrests per 100,000 MetroCard swipes were all located in predominantly black neighborhoods near the border of Brownsville and East New York (Junius St. 3, Atlantic Av L, Sutter Av L, and Livonia Av L stations).
Fare evasion arrest rates at these stations were between 7 and 35 times higher than rates at stations located in areas with comparable numbers of Hispanic poor residents (around stations in Sunset Park). Similarly, fare evasion arrest rates at stations located in Brownsville and East New York are considerably higher than at other Brooklyn subway stations with similar or even higher numbers of nearby criminal complaints located in areas that are not predominantly black. This suggests that the high rate of farebeating arrests is not merely incidental to the deployment of police to high crime areas.
Institutional Changes in Enforcement Policies Needed
The report’s findings are timely given recent announcements by the Manhattan and Brooklyn District Attorneys that they intend to scale back criminal prosecutions of fare evasion, a non-violent offense. At the same time, legislation has also been proposed that, if enacted, would a.) Significantly change the way the NYPD reports and disseminates information on fare evasion arrests; and b.) Change fare evasion from a criminal offense to a civil violation.
Today the City Council Committee on Public Safety will hold a hearing on legislation introduced by Council Member Lancman that would require the NYPD to provide quarterly reports on both the number of arrests for fare evasion, the number of civil summonses issued, and the demographic and location information of those arrests. At the state level, State Senator Hamilton and Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright have proposed legislation that would decriminalize fare evasion and make it a civil offense under the State Penal Code.
Still, authors of the report warn that without concerted institutional change in the enforcement policies of the NYPD, the city will still be paying millions of dollars for the police to engage and punish poor New Yorkers of color in ways that do not appear to be driven by legitimate public safety concerns. The report notes that New York City spends upwards of $50 million dollars every year to arrest, prosecute, or fine low-income New Yorkers who often cannot afford to use public transit.
“Instead of spending city funds to arrest poor people for fare evasion, especially poor people of color, we should redirect these city resources to policing more serious crimes and consider ways in which we can make the public transit system more affordable and accessible for all New Yorkers,” said report co-author and CSS Senior Economist Harold Stolper.