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Is Jail a Fair Punishment for Skipping Bus Fare?

In Portland, Ore., people were being locked up for the offense often -- African-Americans disproportionately so.

In the Portland area, African-Americans are more likely to be charged with certain transit violations.
Suppose you don’t pay your bus fare. Should you go to jail for that?

It has happened quite often in the Portland, Ore., area, where there’s a crime on the books called interfering with public transportation, or IPT. That can mean anything from repeated fare evasion to disruptive behavior. The point is, a lot of people have been getting arrested for it.

Rod Underhill, the district attorney in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, has noticed that in his jurisdiction, as in most metropolitan areas, there are a disproportionate number of prosecutions involving African-Americans. He traces a lot of this back to IPT. It turns out that African-Americans are eight times as likely as whites to be charged for certain transit violations.

It may not sound like a big deal, but IPT is categorized as a Class A misdemeanor. That puts it on the same level as domestic abuse and drunk driving. 

In other words, a fare evader can receive the same sentence as someone who punches another person in the face.

According to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, in recent years IPT convictions in Multnomah County led to an average sentence of 15 days. 

In neighboring Washington County, the average sentence was nearly twice as long. That amount of time cost taxpayers thousands of dollars per conviction. It cost them even more when offenders, often mentally ill, were sent to state hospitals. “It’s a very expensive way to deal with the problem,” says Mitch Greenlick, who represents Portland in the Oregon House.

Out of concern for both racial inequities and overly punitive sentences involving crimes on public transit, Underhill brokered a deal with TriMet, the local transit authority, and his fellow district attorneys in Washington and Clackamas counties. (TriMet denies engaging in any racial discrimination.) Instead of being treated as a Class A misdemeanor, fare evasion in all three counties is now subject to fines in line with traffic violations. Those who interfere more actively with public transportation will face a matrix of somewhat stricter punishments ranging from community service to further prosecution. “If you’re on a light rail platform and you’re [kicked out] for fare jumping, we’re not going to arrest you anymore,” Greenlick says.

Many citizens continue to regard fare-evading as an insult to public order, but the new policy has won praise from legislators who were concerned about the old hard-line approach, as well as community activists who saw transit arrests as a gateway to harsher encounters with the criminal justice system down the line. “I don’t think going for a conviction over repeated fare evasion is in the best interest of justice, as an issue of both equity and fairness,” says Brian Renauer, a criminologist at Portland State University. “Particularly when you learn that the consequence of an arrest for interfering with public transportation is jail time and upward of a $2,500 fine.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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