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Metro may drop fines for young fare evaders

Passengers board a Metro Red Line train during rush hour.
David McNew/Getty Images
Passengers board a Metro Red Line train during rush hour.

As the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority considers switching its transit policing contract Thursday, the board of directors will also vote on a planthat would decriminalize fare evasion by riders younger than 18.

Tickets for not paying fares on transit are the most common citations issued to juveniles in the county, according to the L.A. County Probation Department. 

Metro officials pushing the policy change say the starting fine of $75, which can run up to $250 with late fees, places an unfair financial burden on young people, who also miss some school to attend court if they contest citations or fail to pay. 

"This is an attempt to address what we've perceived to be a long-standing problem of criminalizing this segment of the population," said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the board members who introduced the motion.

Ridley-Thomas points to statistics that show black and Latino youth are disproportionately ticketed, and he said the encounters with law enforcement can have lasting negative consequences for their lives.

Under California law, transit agencies are allowed to handle fare evasion citations as administrative matters, like parking tickets, rather than criminal offenses. 

Currently, adults who are cited in L.A. County can resolve their tickets through Metro's transit court, which is much like traffic court. But juveniles have been swept into the probation system to resolve their infractions.

"That is not a good thing," said Ridley-Thomas. "Once in that system, bad things happen."

If the board approves the motion Thursday, the agency will move to create a new system to deal with youth fare evasion that minimizes interaction with law enforcement, takes cases out of the probation system and potentially eliminates all financial penalties for fare evasion.

An alternative penalty has not been officially proposed yet, but it could include community service or completion of an online educational program. Metro already offers discounted youth tickets for $1 instead of the usual base fare of $1.75.

Fare evasion has been an ongoing problem for Metro, which has installed gated turnstiles at only about half of all rail stations. The agency has stepped up random checks by sheriff’s deputies but estimates about 5 to 6 percent of passengers don’t pay.

Metro's fares are already lower than those in most major cities and the agency recoups only about one-quarter of its operating costs from those fares - about half as much as more established systems in other large metropolitan areas.