New York

When Poverty Is A Crime On The Subway

The rising cost of subway fares has more repercussions for low-income New Yorkers than just transportation

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The city should fund half-price MetroCards for New Yorkers at or below the federal poverty level to keep people out of jail, transit advocates, public defenders, and community organizers said at a rally outside City Hall Wednesday morning.

The Fair Fares campaign already enjoys the support of a veto-proof majority of City Councilmembers, who voted in March to fund a $50 million pilot program that would provide half-price MetroCards to an estimated 380,000 New Yorkers making less than half the federal poverty level.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has so far resisted the plan, saying the city can’t afford it, and that in any case responsibility for subway fares rests with the state.

Jodi Morales-Vargas, a lawyer with the Bronx Defenders, told the crowd that fare-evasion charges have become one of the major ways that people are drawn into the criminal justice system, with 37,500 people receiving jail sentences for fare evasion between 2008 and 2013, and 2,000 fare-evasion prosecutions between last September and this February.

“Those thousands of people are costing the city a lot of money,” Morales-Vargas said. “We’re spending an exorbitant amount of money prosecuting cases that we don’t need to.”

Tina Luongo, who heads the Legal Aid Society’s criminal practice, said affordable access to public transportation touches every aspect of New Yorkers’ lives.

“This is not just a criminal justice issue,” she said. “This is an issue that affects our communities, it affects people’s ability to gain employment, housing, day care, education, special needs medical attention, and treatment. So if we frame this as a criminal justice issue, we are losing sight of a much bigger picture.”

The federal poverty level is an income metric used to determine access to various government programs. It ranges from an annual income of $11,880 for an individual to $40,890 for a family of eight, according to state data.

“Public transportation is not public if the public cannot afford it,” said City Councilman Carlos Menchaca. “This is a lifeline for so many people.”

Herman Frazier, 65, of Brownsville, says he’s watched rising subway fares drive more and more people in his neighborhood to turnstile hopping.

“Since the fare went up, people just can’t afford it anymore,” he said. “You see people asking for a swipe, asking for a swipe, and then when the time runs out and they have to get to work, they’ll hop the turnstile. Sometimes, it’s kids beating the fare because they’ve got to get to a court date for beating the fare!”

The City Council continues to hold hearings on de Blasio’s proposed $85 billion budget this week. The mayor and the council must reach agreement on a budget by the beginning of the fiscal year in July.

Top image via John St. John/Flickr