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Arrested for Jumping a Turnstile: How New York City Punishes the Poor

Criminalizing poverty is hardly a progressive value.

(Photo: Ryan DeBerardinis / Shutterstock)

In “progressive” New York City, reminders of inequality abound: A homeless woman asleep outside of a bank, a man begging for spare change outside of Starbucks. But as city officials have boasted about making New York City “the fairest big city in America,” they have remained committed to punishing New Yorkers who don’t — or can’t — pay the subway fare.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried to paint himself as a national progressive leader and been praised in books by progressive authors. During his campaign and first term, de Blasio has railed against income inequality to bolster several proposals around housing, education and even a “millionaire’s tax.” At the same time, he has clung to the “broken windows” theory of policing, which focuses on aggressive police enforcement of low-level offenses like jumping a turnstile. Last month, he went to new lows to keep the city on the criminal punishment track started under Rudy Giuliani and beloved by the most conservative voices in the US.

After Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced in February that he would not, with notable exceptions, prosecute fare-beating arrests, Mayor de Blasio insisted that many turnstile jumpers “have money in their pocket” to try to undercut sympathy for fare beaters from, ironically, an inequality perspective. For someone whose political identity hinges on being seen as a defender of the poor, the mayor’s attempts to divert the conversation away from poverty is strategic. His anecdote-based line of reasoning, however, is not.

A month has passed since de Blasio’s controversial comments, but the city has still not produced any data about how much money people have on them when they’re stopped or arrested for fare beating. Of course, even if someone has, say, $100 on them, the mere fact of having actual money on your person doesn’t preclude someone from living in poverty or scraping to get by — the sort of economic squeeze that might make evading the fare appealing. The mayor’s fare-beating squabbling, in fact, seems to parallel conservative denials of poverty, like an infamous 2011 Heritage Foundation report that argued poor people aren’t really poor because they own air conditioners and have cable television.

While our “inequality-fighting” mayor struggles to grasp the concept that a subway turnstile might be an economic barrier, he added insult to injury last month by echoing Giuliani in implying fare beaters pose a unique public safety threat. During a press conference with New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill, de Blasio pointed to rising subway robberies as a reason fare-beating arrests must continue. The city has not offered evidence that fare evasion has caused robberies to go up. The simple notion that someone “criminal-minded” enough to jump a turnstile might also be committing robberies seemed, to de Blasio, clearly self-evident.

The fare-beaters-as-dangerous-predators trope didn’t end there. Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill noted, anecdotally, that fare-beating stops produce guns (a theme that the conservative New York Post hammers home time and time and time again). What does the data say? Buried within an impassioned defense of broken windows fare-beating arrests by the right-wing think tank, the Manhattan Institute, it was reported that nine guns were recovered by the NYPD during fare-evasion stops last year, and 10 in 2016.

Citing statistics provided by New York State’s Department of Criminal Justice Services, the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) says cops conducted more than 27,000 arrests for theft of services (fare evasion) in 2016; more than 19,000 in 2017, (overwhelmingly of New Yorkers of color, of course); and issued hundreds of thousands of summonses involving police stops. That leaves the rate of gun recoveries via fare-beating arrests/stops at somewhere around 0.0001 percent — a rate worse than even the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

As the city clings to “broken windows” policing, District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and other so-called “progressive” prosecutors (if such people exist) don’t offer a promising solution if you’re too poor to pay the subway fare. While fare-beating arrests offer the sort of medieval criminal punishment nonsense that should be buried in the past, Vance’s “won’t-prosecute” proposal isn’t necessarily new (he made a similar announcement last year), inclusive (dubious gang designations and certain felony and misdemeanor convictions make one ineligible for Vance’s mercy), or game-changing.

In fact, the vast majority of people who are arrested for fare beating are already released, argues Christian Covington, an attorney who has worked on police accountability issues. In 2016, for example, the overwhelming majority of those arrested in Manhattan for fare beating were either released with time served, had their charge dismissed or were compelled to perform community service, according to The New York Times. Only 320 out of almost 10,000 arrested were prosecuted by Vance’s office and sentenced to jail. “They are trying to make themselves look good, when they are just doing the same thing they have always done,” Covington said.

The meat of the punishment for hopping a turnstile isn’t in the prosecution; it’s in the arrest, the time held by police and the ordeal of having to show up to court and having to pay a fine or be forced to perform community service. Regardless, Vance’s move, even though extremely modest, should be watched closely.

Some might remember that that the late, former Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson made similar proclamations in 2014 that his office wouldn’t prosecute low-level marijuana cases — except when they did. Indeed, low-level pot possession prosecutions continued in Brooklyn, including under his successor, Eric Gonzalez, a career prosecutor who has been labeled a “criminal justice reformer” by some in the media.

Of course, whether Gonzalez is blowing smoke about marijuana possession reform, or whether Vance is about not prosecuting fare evasion, cops can and will continue to stop, question and enforce against thousands of poor Black and Latino New Yorkers every year for low-level offenses.

Broken windows policing continues even as fare-beating arrests and criminal summonses have dropped around the city, and civil summons for quality-of-life crimes have gone up. Police-issued civil summonses, which are the preferred “reform” by some liberal lawmakers in the city, can affect a person’s credit score, and those who are summonsed aren’t provided court-appointed counsel, which can result in worse outcomes — especially in a city where police summonsing patterns have proven to be incredibly illegal. In fact, if mass issuance of civil summonses is the endgame of “decriminalization,” it is crucial to not simply ask to decriminalize offenses. The point should be to not punish people for being poor. Period.

Either way, short of radical changes, poor people of color in the US’s “fairest big city” will be stuck between an effort to “decriminalize” and normalize punishment through summonses, the public relations stunts of prosecutors and Mayor Broken Windows’ refusal to stop arresting his way out of poverty.

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