CTA turnstiles photographed in 1972 Credit: Sun-Times Archive

Around 1997, before the CTA used payment cards, wine company owner Rodney Alex, now 50, got locked up for fare evasion after jumping the turnstile at the Harrison Red Line stop, next to Jones College Prep high school.

“I had a paper transfer in my pocket, but there was a long line of students waiting to enter the station,” he recalls. “I was running late for work at Carmine’s Clam House and I’d been told if I was late one more time I’d be fired, so I said ‘Fuck it’ and jumped the turnstile.”

That’s when two female police officers stepped out from behind a door and handcuffed him.

“I was dressed in a frickin’ waiters’ tux, but they gave me no chance to explain myself,” he says. They took him to the local police station, where he was charged with theft of services, a misdemeanor, and spent six hours in a cell before being released.

When he and the officers showed up for his court date, the judge dismissed the charges. “He seemed kind of annoyed,” Alex says. “There’s no way cops should be wasting time taking someone in for stealing $2.25. It’s ridiculous.”

Alex, who’s black, says he believes his arrest was part of a fare evasion sting against the students of the then-largely African-American school.

“I guarantee that if this station was near New Trier there wouldn’t have been two cops making sure no one jumped the turnstile,” he says.

The Chicago Police Department didn’t respond to questions about transit enforcement for this story. But as reported earlier this month by Streetsblog USA, with the renewed focus on the broader disproportionate criminalization of people of color and poor people, west-coast decision makers have been rethinking policies on enforcing transit fare evasion. Chicago criminal justice reform advocates say that’s a conversation we should be having here as well, because being short a couple of dollars for a CTA train or bus ride shouldn’t result in stiff fines or a criminal record, much less deportation.

San Francisco was ahead of the curve on the issue, passing a law in 2008 to decriminalize fare evasion, which means that you can be fined but not charged with a misdemeanor. In 2015, Washington State’s King County, which includes Seattle, decriminalized fare evasion for minors.

In 2016, California decriminalized nonpayment for youth under 18. And in January, after a Portland State University study found African-American TriMet fare evaders were more likely to be penalized than white fare evaders, local prosecutors announced that they’d generally stop pursuing charges for nonpayment.

In contrast, in recent years Chicago officials have taken a hard-line approach to enforcing transit rules. A 2012 Chicago Tribune piece noted that police had made 1,548 arrests for fare evasion the previous year, and police and CTA officials told the paper their current policy was to prosecute people who jump turnstiles.

Then-CTA president Forrest Claypool (who currently heads the Chicago Public Schools) told the Tribune that cracking down on fare evasion was a strategy to prevent more serious crimes on the el system because security camera footage showed that people who picked pockets, snatched purses, and grabbed cell phones almost always entered the system illegally.

“We are arresting robbery offenders for nonrobbery crimes,” Captain Thomas Lemmer of CPD’s Public Transportation Section told the paper. “In the past, we only wrote tickets for the minor offense of stealing service from the CTA. Now we make it chargeable as a theft.”

CPD didn’t provide more recent arrest numbers for fare evasion by press time, but CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman indicated that the agency still supports prosecuting nonpayment as a misdemeanor.

“We take fare evasion very seriously at CTA,” he says. “Fare evasion means a fare-paying customer is not only paying for their own ride but for a portion of someone else’s ride who is not using the system properly.” He declined to estimate how much revenue is lost to fare evasion each year, stating that it’s challenging to track.

“To criminalize something that’s directly related to poverty is ridiculous. It’s the opposite of what laws should be about.”

—Criminal justice reform advocate Jason Ware

One possible downside of the CTA’s fixation with fare evasion is that it seems to have made the agency overly cautious about implementing prepaid boarding along the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor. Loop Link was supposed to include this time-saving feature when it debuted in December 2015, but 15 months later it still hasn’t been rolled out on a permanent basis. (Tolman says that fare evasion is “one of many factors that we look at . . . in deciding whether and where to implement prepaid boarding.”)

Not having prepaid boarding means more dwell time at Loop Link’s eight platform stations, which slows down the buses. So it appears that the CTA’s obsession with losing revenue has, in effect, increased Loop Link travel times, which in turn may be costing the agency ridership and overall revenue.

Jon Orcutt, policy director for the TransitCenter foundation (a Streetsblog Chicago donor) says that American transit agencies should stop worrying so much about whether every single rider has paid. Instead, he argues, they should focus on implementing features like prepaid and all-door bus boarding as soon as possible, because they shorten trip times, which attracts more customers and can have a net positive effect on revenue.

“Transit people here have this religion about avoiding any possible fare evasion,” he told Streetsblog USA.

But the most compelling argument for not jailing someone for depriving the CTA of $2.25 is an ethical one. State senator Robert Hertzberg, who sponsored California’s statewide legislation, felt that excessive punishment for nonpayment was unfairly resulting in criminal records for low-income youth in his district.

“They don’t have the cash to pay for a ride to school or maybe to a job, they get a ticket, and next thing they know, the ticket can be hundreds of dollars, and they don’t know how to pay that,” Hertzberg’s spokesman, Andrew Lamar, told Streetsblog USA. “Kids would end up either being convicted of some misdemeanor or spending time in juvenile hall. . . . That punishment is far too harsh for the crime.”

Locally, Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle has similarly advocated for policy changes designed to keep low-level, nonviolent offenders out of jail.

“President Preckwinkle has been clear that people charged with petty offenses should not be forced into the criminal justice system,” spokesman Frank Shuftan said via e-mail. “We would support [decriminalizing fare evasion] given that these are petty offenses and that there are better ways to manage this sort of behavior than heavy fines or funneling them through our jail on a misdemeanor charge.”

Jason Ware, who runs a restorative justice program at Austin High School and has been active with the local Black Lives Matter movement, echoes these sentiments. He says he’s heard multiple stories of people being threatened with arrest because they needed to go somewhere and didn’t have enough money in their pocket or on their Ventra card to board a CTA bus.

“To criminalize something that’s directly related to poverty is ridiculous,” Ware says. “It’s the opposite of what laws should be about.”

Another reason to decriminalize nonpayment is to reduce the chances that a minor infraction on transit could lead to major legal problems, or even deportation, for undocumented immigrants.

“Many people targeted for fare evasion on metros around the country tend to be . . . people from immigrant communities,” says Naomi Doerner, a New Orleans-based transportation-equity consultant. “They then end up with these minor violations on their records, which make them [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] targets because they’re labeled undocumented ‘criminals.'”

These are all good reasons for Chicago to reconsider its commitment to prosecuting fare evaders. If that devotion borders on religious (as Jon Orcutt said), let’s hope Chicago will follow the lead of other American cities and question that orthodoxy.   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Jon Orcutt’s name. We regret the error.