Why Chicago Should Make Fare Evasion a Fineable Offense, Not a Misdemeanor

Photo: Kevin Zolkiewicz
Photo: Kevin Zolkiewicz

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate part of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

Back 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.

Read the rest of the article on the Reader website.


  • Pat

    How does Metra deal with fare evasion?

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    How would you evade the fare on Metra?

  • Deni

    We are so backwards with our punishments in this country. A driver who regularly blows through red lights and stop signs, drives at excessive speeds, switches lanes or turns without signaling, parks in bike lanes, etc. is a much bigger danger to public safety than a turnstile jumper. But the driver gets a ticket (if they even ever get pulled over to begin with) and the fare-evader ends up in cuffs.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The thing about Metra is that it’s common for the conductors to fail to ask riders for proof of payment, which is why they recently launched a campaign pleading, “Be fair, pay the fare.” The enforcement is so spotty, fare payment depends on the honor system.

    When a conductor asks a rider for proof of payment and the person refuses to pay, the conductor orders them to leave the train. If the rider won’t leave, it’s common for the engineer to stop the train so that police can come on board at the next stop and forcibly remove the person. I’ll ask Metra about whether it’s common for offenders to be cited in these circumstances.

  • Concerned citizen

    Why not just make the CTA free? Seems likes it’s classist to make people pay.

  • Pat

    Riding the train a few stops without having the means to pay and getting caught.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    We already offer free or reduced CTA rides to seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and students. I’d support offering free or reduced rides to low-income folks as well, which would make it easier for them to access education, job, and social services that would give them a better opportunity to improve their situation.

    “But too many people already treat the ‘L’ like a homeless shelter,” you say? The answer is for Chicago to invest in more emergency shelters and affordable housing to better address our city’s homelessness problem.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Got this from Metra spokesman Michael Gillis: “Most fare disputes are resolved by conductors without the need for police. If police have to be called, what usually happens is that their presence is enough to convince the person to pay, or find the money they couldn’t find before. They’re allowed back on that train or the next one. If that doesn’t happen they’ll probably be given a ticket and let go. It’s rare that they get arrested.”

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    You can go through toll booths on the toll way without paying and its fine as long as you go online and pay within a set period of days. I’d assume some people on Metra simply don’t realize they can’t pay with a credit card or don’t realize they don’t have enough cash or whatever.

  • Batboy

    I agree with Claypool – Broken Windows theory.

  • kastigar

    You can balance the risk of the fine vs. the fare. The risk of an arrest and misdemeanor punishment is much more serious.

    When will we see the effect that those liberal cities have when they give away all the free rides to gate-jumpers? Will the increase be recorded and reported? Probably not.

  • a. Weaver

    Jumping a turnstile is a misdemeanor.

    Yet the driver who killed 5-year-old Daniel Solis last week:

    “was cited for failure to exercise due care to pedestrians in the roadway.”

    This makes no sense whatsoever.

  • Fred

    The blanket reduced fares for seniors kills me. My parents, who are in their 70’s, retired, and financially comfortable, should not get a reduced fare while a 20-something who is barely scraping by pays full freight to get to work. Reduced fares should be based on income, not age. Not all seniors are financially vulnerable.

  • kclo3

    Asking riders outright to make up for the poor oversight and performance of conductors is the epitome of what is so broken with using conductors in the 21st century. It’s a system that is essentially PoP that has to be enforced 100% of the time, or it doesn’t work at all. But US commuter rail agencies will never learn, it seems.

  • I wonder if that varies by line.

  • Allan Marshall

    I totally agree, that never should’ve happened! Honestly, that was a political ploy by ex-Gov. Blagojevich to get more votes. And you’re totally correct that reduced fares should be based on income, not age.


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