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This $2.75 gateway to jail targets New York’s poorest black neighborhoods

Subway turnstiles in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

This $2.75 gateway to jail targets New York’s poorest black neighborhoods

In New York City, many demographics are eligible for subsidized MetroCards, which allow them to access the increasingly expensive and dysfunctionalsubway system at a lower cost. Transit benefits are available to the elderly, disabled, and schoolchildren, and many companies offer their employees pre-tax MetroCards as part of their benefits package. But one group of New Yorkers is conspicuously left out when it comes to reduced-cost subway and bus access: Those living in poverty.

Low-income New Yorkers who can’t afford the $2.75 cost of a ride are frequently arrested for fare evasion. It’s a punishment that falls hardest on black residents in high poverty neighborhoods. And while the prevalence of racial disparities in transit enforcement isn’t a revelation, a new report from the Community Service Society of New York (CSSNY) maps fare-beating arrests in Brooklyn for the first time, illustrating their high concentration in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Further, The Crime of Being Short $2.75 emphasizes that this punishment for poverty falls harder not just on communities of color broadly, but specifically on low-income black New Yorkers. The report shows that fewer farebeating arrests take place near stations in high-poverty predominately Latinx neighborhoods, compared to their black counterparts, indicating that this targeted policing correlates with race in addition to poverty.

Disturbingly, this concentration of arrests is “not driven by poverty or crime or legitimate public safety concerns,” Harold Stolper, co-author of the report and CSSNY senior labor economist, tells In Justice Today. “This is broken windows policing at the turnstile.”

Broken windows policing is based on the theory that targeting low-level, nonviolent “quality of life” offenses such as farebeating can prevent more serious crimes. Since the theory emerged in the early 1980’s and was popularized by the New York Police Department in the 1990’s, however, the tactic has been criticized for its uneven application between communities of color and whites, its ineffectiveness, and its role in further fracturing police and community relations.

CSSNY’s findings further reveal the targeted impact of broken windows policing, which has been decried and challenged by grassroots organizers in New York City for years. By gathering arrest data from both the NYPD and two public defender organizations in Brooklyn and overlaying it with 2016 census data, the organization was able to get a more complete picture of exactly who is being arrested for fare evasion and where.

On Monday, City Councilmember Rory Lancman introduced a bill that would require the NYPD to file quarterly reports of all arrests and summonses issued for fare evasion, including demographic information of those arrested. Lancman tweeted that his bill “fills in gaps in [the] current reporting system.” With only the current NYPD arrest data, CSSNY would not have had a complete picture — hence their inclusion of stats from public defenders’ offices.

The findings illustrate how the city’s justice system criminalizes poverty in black neighborhoods. For example, young black men (ages 16 to 36) represented half of all fare evasion arrests in Brooklyn in 2016, but only comprise 13.1% of poor adults in the borough, according to the report. The highest number of fare evasion arrests per 100,000 MetroCard swipes occurred at subway stations near the border of Brownsville and East New York, two of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, blacks make up less than one-third of Brooklyn adults living in poverty, but two-thirds of those arrested for fare evasion. The report shows that the greatest concentration of fare evasion arrests occur at stations “nearest to the poorest and predominately black census tracts.” Stolper and his coauthor, Jeff Jones, attribute the disparate enforcement to the rise of broken windows policing, high arrest rates driven by quotas from NYPD supervisors, as well as explicit and implicit bias.

On top of the problematic ties between poverty, race, and policing, the report notes that farebeating arrests are expensive, estimating that the city spends roughly $50 million per year to arrest, prosecute, or fine low-income New Yorkers unable to afford the fare. “Why is the city spending all of this money to over-police the turnstile…instead of helping them access transit to get to work and to get to school?” asks Stolper.

In April, a budget proposal from the City Council called for that same amount — $50 million — to fund a pilot program that would subsidize half-price MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. Mayor Bill de Blasio argued that the cost should fall on the state, not the city, and in June declined to include the program in the budget. CSSNY supports the idea of half-price MetroCards, as well as decriminalizing fare evasion.

But decriminalization comes with its own pitfalls. Issuing summonses instead of arresting those who evade the fare doesn’t address the issue of policing that targets neighborhoods by race and income.

Stolper acknowledges this, saying “decriminalization is not the answer, but we support it,” and adding that ending broken windows policing is the best way to stop the criminalization of poor New Yorkers at the turnstile. The Coalition to End Broken Windows, an alliance of community-based grassroots organizations, agrees that broken windows should be the real target, but argue that decriminalization is not an acceptable solution. While summonses might seem better than a trip to jail, they do come with fines that are unrealistic for people already living in poverty. And unpaid fines can lead to open arrest warrants which, you guessed it, lead right back to jail.

“It’s better than having a criminal record,” says Stolper, “But if you can’t afford $2.75, you can’t afford $100.”

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

The Philadelphia Inquirer Just Endorsed Mass Incarceration

Beth Grossman

The Philadelphia Inquirer Just Endorsed Mass Incarceration

In May, Philadelphians went to the polls and made history, voting by a large margin to back civil rights attorney Larry Krasner in the city’s Democratic primary for district attorney. On Sunday, residents awoke to find that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board had endorsed Krasner’s Republican opponent, Beth Grossman, a former top prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office.

Krasner rallied Philadelphians to an upstart, radical campaign calling for an end to the era of mass incarceration and impunity for police misconduct. The city’s struggling paper of record endorsed a candidate who presided over a nationally infamous civil asset forfeiture program through which prosecutors seized homes and other property from city residents, oftentimes poor and working-class, black and Latino. At least, the editorial gushed, she has “a welcome hesitancy to go for the death penalty.”

Philadelphians want change. The Inquirer board ploddingly declared itself for the enervating cause of defending an intolerable status quo that will most likely be defeated on election day.

But points for consistency: Grossman is the second candidate for top prosecutor the paper has endorsed who has also been backed by the city’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, an unapologetically reactionary officers union headed by a man who recently called Black Lives Matter protesters “a pack of wild animals.” That first FOP-backed candidate the Inquirer endorsed was Rich Negrin, one of Krasner’s primary opponents. Oddly, the board’s praise for Negrin included a note that the “criminal justice pendulum has been swinging in a new direction for some time, away from ‘tough on crime,’” but failed to mention that it was Krasner’s insurgent, movement-based campaign that had swung the primary field to the left.

It’s remarkable that the board’s opposition to Krasner, a candidate who won the primary on a wave of grassroots mobilization that has become a nationwide model for activists, is explained in so few words. The one clearly stated rationale for opposing him is that he has not been a prosecutor before. The board celebrates Grossman as “a career prosecutor” while suggesting that with Krasner, “voters should be concerned about his lack of prosecutorial experience — and mindset — needed to head an office whose job is to prosecute crime.” Inexperience as a prosecutor, however, didn’t stop the board from endorsing Josh Shapiro — a career politician who alighted from work as a young Congressional aide to the state House — in his successful 2016 run for Attorney General.

I’ll climb out on a limb and propose that it is almost as if the board is not giving the public a truthful account of why they oppose him. That honest reason, I’ll venture, has something to do with their dig on Krasner’s “mindset.” Explaining why they oppose this “mindset” — one that believes prosecutors must use their extraordinary power and discretion to help end the mass caging of more than two million Americans, and to reject the all-too-normal complicity with lying and abusive cops — would have made this shameful endorsement at least seem less cowardly.

What the Inquirer’s editorial board suffers from is a familiar case of the liberal establishment’s fetishization of technocracy, whereby a narrowly-tailored standard of experience that only a creature of the establishment could meet is prized above all else. Indeed, their editorial endorsing Hillary Clinton and panning Bernie Sanders (who has supported Krasner) employed the same rationale: Sanders, they wrote, was the “campaign’s unlikely poet laureate” but was “surprisingly short on the prose behind the poetry.” Expertise and competence are critical. But talent and experience running a brutally oppressive system should count as demerits rather than laudatory achievements. The Inquirer editorial board professes to want change yet can only seem to support candidates who will guarantee more of the same.

In reality, the board’s rationale is a pretext to protect an office that has long prized convictions and lengthy sentences regardless of the costs or whether the outcomes comport with any sense of justice. The Inquirer praises Grossman for her career going “after drug dealers, gunslingers, thieves, and blighters” and her “passion for defending the rights of crime victims.” Not a word about mass incarceration. To editorialize in favor of such a brutal status quo is an insult to the Philadelphians on whose behalf the board purports to be writing.

Many dogged reporters at the Inquirer and Daily News have exposed criminal justice system abuses. But the editorial board’s interest in injustice rarely extends beyond the cases of penny-ante-if-corrosive corruption that pervade politics in the state. Even as mass incarceration has become a defining moral issue, the board has paid precious little attention to the damage caused not only by crime but also by the criminal justice’s response to it: generations of families in a heavily poor, working-class and non-white city torn apart by imprisonment.

The Inquirer, like its sister tabloid the Daily News, has suffered tremendously in recent years as falling revenues have led to round after round of staff cuts. The city has suffered as a result. But the Inquirer editorial board is doing the paper no favors by making it seem less relevant and less in touch with the city than ever.

In the past, The Inquirer has endorsed both former District Attorney Seth Williams and state Attorney General Kathleen Kane. Both are now out of their jobs after criminal convictions, the former for committing shameful but rather pathetic acts of corruption and the latter for charges stemming from petty and vengeance-driven misconduct. Where was their criticism when Williams, who had run as a progressive reformer, fought to oppose marijuana decriminalization, and ran an office that condoned police perjury and energetically endeavored to keep wrongfully convicted Philadelphians behind bars for life? Or how about when reporter Isaiah Thompson published an investigation at my alma mater, the defunct Philadelphia City Paper, exposing the state-sanctioned theft that Grossman engineered at the DA’s office through its civil asset forfeiture program? Crickets. The Inquirer without much skepticism notes Grossman “says she was following the rules at that time.” Just following the rules? Okay then. I’ll refrain from taking easy shots at that excuse.

The Inquirer endorsement did have a few words of praise for Krasner. “He rightly argues that it spends too many resources going after the poor and disenfranchised, and not enough on those who victimize Philadelphians,” they wrote. But even this friendly caveat doesn’t make much sense and gets Krasner’s campaign entirely wrong. Krasner has called for funds to be reallocated from prisons to schools, not from one sort of prosecution to another.

This editorial’s most galling failure is that it does not comprehend or acknowledge how many Philly lives mass incarceration has destroyed. The Krasner campaign is not about Larry Krasner. It’s about a grassroots rebellion against a brutal criminal justice status quo that churned Philadelphians into a state prison system that as of the end of 2016 held more than 13,000 people from the city. It’s a status quo that the editorial board is either somehow ignorant of or, more troublingly, content to leave in place.

Disclosure: Larry Krasner is a colleague of mine at the Fair Punishment Project. Yet, a quick perusal of my work should make it abundantly clear that my support for Krasner predates this shared affiliation.

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Dispatches from the Still Raging Drug War

US Marshalls Office of Public Affairs

Dispatches from the Still Raging Drug War

Note: This first appeared in our daily In Justice Today newsletter. To get stories like these in your inbox every day, you can sign up here.

Media narratives around drug prosecutions have tended to overstate a turn away from punishment and towards rehabilitation for substance users. While this has been true in some instances, many jurisdictions are continuing to employ the same carceral “solutions,” and with increased fervor. Today, we shine a light on the district attorneys who made headlines over the weekend for their efforts to roll back, or deepen, our nation’s drug war.

  • A Prosecutor’s Unprecedented Expansion of Drug Prosecutions Causes Jail Overcrowding. Is the solution building a bigger jail? At a time when many state and local agencies are creating narrow means to keep people who commit drug offenses out of prison, Sebastian County (AR) Prosecutor Dan Shue is aggressively pursuing the opposite approach, overseeing a rapid expansion of drug prosecutions that has led to calls for a jail expansion. Whereas there were just 27 drug-related defendants in the local jail in 1970, that number has ballooned to thousands — particularly in light of an unprecedented two-year surge in drug prosecutions. Now, the jail “is overflowing from the issues created by drug arrests.” As a result, the jail has suffered “not just sewer system problems, but backlogged mail deliveries, lack of jail clothing and bedding, over occupancy in the hospital cells, fights among detainees in close quarters, and a general high level of stress on both sides of the bars.” Female prisoners have also complained of sexual harassment and “sleeping on floors of cells, some women without mats, directly in the way of cells, directly under toilets, or in an unsafe place due to overcrowding.” Unfortunately, this problem is likely to get worse. Rather than reexamine its prosecuting priorities, Shue, along with the county’s sheriff, are calling for new jails because “we have more arrests and criminal filings and people being sent to prison now more than ever.” [John Lovett / Times Record]
  • MD State’s Attorney brings county’s first overdose-as-homicide case.Anne Arundel County (MD) State’s Attorney Wes Adams has charged a man with involuntary manslaughter for an overdose death that occurred in January. Adams’ office and local law enforcement spent nine months of resources trying to track down the alleged source of the drugs that led to a fatal overdose. This carceral approach reflects a policy change within the office to focus on prosecution instead of treatment and diversion. As Anjali Hemphill explains, “In the past, fatal overdoses were treated more like a medical situation, but investigators said because of the county’s opioid epidemic they started treating them more like a crime scene so they can try to track down the supplier.” This is the first such prosecution in the county. State’s Attorney Adams’ brother died earlier this year from an overdose after he exited a 28-day inpatient treatment program. [Anjali Hemphill / Fox 5 News]
  • A 12-year-old found drugs in a house and overdosed, now her 60 year-old babysitter is charged with murder. In Columbus, Ohio, the office of Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien has determined that a 60-year-old woman accused of killing a 12-year-old with fentanyl must remain behind bars on a $60,000 bond, even though prosecutors do not allege that she administered the fentanyl herself. Instead, they believe that the child found her drugs and overdosed on them while she was out of the house. Charging overdoses as homicide is unfortunately not new for O’Brien, as he charged at least seven people this way this last year alone. [WSYX / WTTE / ABC News 5]

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