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Some 90 miles north of Philadelphia, there’s a reckoning going on over paying for subway rides. Unlike in Philly, which recently decriminalized fare evasion, New York City is ramping up its enforcement.

Things came to a head last month when MTA police pulled their guns on 19-year-old Adrian Napier, who hadn’t paid the $2.75 fare. The officers were widely criticized for endangering Napier and dozens of additional people riding the packed subway car.

MTA police tasered and arrested two teenagers for fare evasion just three days later.

The escalating situation in New York has led to mass protests that saw hundreds flood turnstiles and enter without paying. That’s pretty much the opposite of what’s been going on in Philly.

Since SEPTA Transit Police introduced their new system at the start of the year, just 13 people have been assessed the harshest penalty — a total SEPTA ban — but even those people avoided criminal charges.

As of January, fare evasion along Philly’s transportation lines lands you a misdemeanor citation and $25 fine.

Only if you do that more than four times and skip paying the cost are you liable to get banned from SEPTA for good. But realistically the ban is… lightly enforced. Transit police don’t carry around those 13 people’s photos or spend time seeking them out, per SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch. They’ll only know that someone violated the ban if they catch them evading the fare once again.

The repeat offender is also handed a misdemeanor trespassing charge. Then the District Attorney’s Office sends those cases to diversionary court to address the underlying cause, Busch said.

That’s a huge switch from the previous rule, where hopping a turnstile just once carried the risk of a $300 fine and potential criminal charges right away. SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III used to post often about nabbing offenders on his Twitter account, coining the hashtag #cheesesandwich — a common first meal in prison — to call them out.

But in the face of advocacy and studies that showed the hefty fines and possible arrests for what was just a $2 or $3 offense disproportionately target people with lower incomes and people of color, Nestel changed his tune.

“Being able to see the future of justice and melding the various elements of the justice system to work together, that’s what prompted the change,” Nestel told Billy Penn. “The focus is just as intense. The repercussions for the offender are different.”

The number of citations is close to equivalent what it used to be, according to Busch. Through October of this year, 2,590 people have been handed citations, on track with the 3,500 or so folks who used to be arrested for turnstile jumping annually.

But instead of getting tangled in the criminal justice system, most of the offenders are just slapped with the $25 fine. It took a few months to roll out the new enforcement method, Busch said, but as of April, it was fully implemented.

Meanwhile in NYC, hundreds of security cameras have been installed near subway platforms to catch the people who don’t pay, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo hired 500 more cops in the last six months to stop city dwellers from bypassing the price of entry.

That’s despite stats released by the NYPD for the first half of 2019 showing more than half of New York’s arrested fare evaders were black, per Vox.

SEPTA is reluctant to comment on what’s going on in our neighboring city to the north.

“It is difficult for us to make a comment or comparison with another transit agency,” spokesperson Busch said, “because each entity has to weigh the expectations of its customers, the community, elected officials and other stakeholders.”

Transit Police Chief Nestel is all in on the new system.

“SEPTA’s Administrative Enforcement Program is a byproduct of vision,” Nestel said. “Being able to see the future of justice and melding the various elements of the justice system to work together.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...