“At least 155 of our 480 inmates have been jailed in lieu of payment for fare dodging,” Udo Plessow, warden of Berlin's Plötzensee correctional facility told the paper. “Actually we have more than that, but when the men are sentenced because of another crime as well, they don't get registered for fare dodging separately,” he said.
The debt counseling office in the city's Neukölln district often points out that not paying the fine for Schwarzfahren, or fare dodging, will end with jail time, the paper reported. But many people either ignore this or simply don't have the money to pay fines. German public transport runs on an honor system where passengers buy tickets that are sometimes checked by plainclothes transport employees. The lack of turnstiles or other formal ticket enforcement makes fare dodging simple for those who don't care to part with their pocket change.
The Berlin city administration of justice offers a community service program for those who can't pay the fine for fare dodging, though. Schwitzen statt sitzen, which means “sweating instead of doing time,” allows the small-time criminals to work off their fines. “Unfortunately not everyone is ready and willing to do that,” Daniel Abbou, the organization's spokesperson told Der Tagesspiegel.
Most of the fare dodgers who end up in prison also have alcohol or drug problems which can render them incapable of the community service, prison warden Plessow said. “Some think the country has to provide them with the option to get from A to B. And those are the ones who don't work off the fine - and then they have to do time in the end,” he said.
The environmentalist Green party says the policy is absurd, and has been fighting to classify fare dodging as a petty offense, reasoning that prisoners cost the government €80 per day, when their social benefits outside of jail would cost the state as little as €10 per day.
“Welfare recipients and people with low income should get a free public transport pass,” Green party legal expert Benedikt Lux told the paper.