For Immediate Release : January 17, 2019
Contact : Rita D. Lewis, Communications Director: (202) 256-7154;

Councilmember Robert White's Statement on
Mayor Bowser’s Fair Evasion Bill Veto

Washington, DC I am disappointed that the Mayor used a rare veto to overturn the Fare Evasion Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2018 . WMATA fare evasion enforcement data shows a stark and undeniable racial disparity. Advocating for an enforcement practice that is clearly discriminatory is unjust, and we cannot forsake justice in the name of “financial challenges.” When we do, people of color and low-income residents bear the consequences of our inaction. Vetoing a criminal justice bill without offering an alternative solution hurts our residents. I ask that the Mayor strongly consider reversing course.

The Council of the District of Columbia did not decriminalize fare evasion on WMATA trains and buses to encourage people not to pay their fares. We passed this bill because data shows that 91% of people to whom WMATA issues criminal citations for fare evasion are Black. This reflects either clear racial discrimination or a deep underlying problem. Whichever conclusion is correct, we, the elected officials who represent these residents, have an obligation to address the inequity. When we fail to do that, and instead send our residents into the criminal justice system, we have neither solved the real problems nor helped the people we represent.

To be clear, the fare evasion bill did not legalize or eliminate enforcement of fare evasion. The bill made penalties more consistent with other transportation infractions, like not paying a parking meter or driving in a toll lane without paying, which only carry civil fines. Revenue collection simply does not justify criminalizing low-income people over a nominal fee.

Nationally, 67% of incarcerated men and women are people of color despite making up only 37% of the population. We must be conscious of our own contributions to a lopsided and discriminatory criminal justice system. Too often, lawmakers ornament their shelves with the canon of social justice literature, like “The New Jim Crow,” while advancing the very policies this literature demonstrates to be unfair and ineffective.

The conservative “tough on crime” approach makes residents feel safer in the short run, but makes us less safe in the long run. The United States has the highest prison population in the world, yet we have one of the highest rates of violent crime. Clearly, attempts to arrest our way out of deeper problems have not worked. Over-criminalization only compounds the harm to our communities because residents return from long, unproductive prison sentences with steeper barriers to legal opportunities. 

I appreciate that the Mayor is sensitive to WMATA’s concerns. However, it is not lost on residents that in April 2018, WMATA provided a private train car to white nationalists in the name of public safety and has vigorously opposed the Council’s fare evasion bill despite stark racial disparities in enforcement. While I do not believe that WMATA intends to be as insulting or discriminatory as their actions have shown, I believe its inconsistency demonstrates why it should not be directing criminal policy. If the Mayor does not reverse course, the Council must overturn her veto.