Study Rails Against Unfairness of Community Service

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Court-ordered community service in Los Angeles County negatively impacts low-income communities of color who can’t afford fines and are forced to choose between the equivalent of three weeks of full-time unpaid work or jail time, a new study says.

Community service is meant as a humane alternative to jail time for someone who cannot pay their court fees. But according to a study published on Wednesday from the UCLA Labor Center and School of Law, the work often mimics or exacerbates the problems of a court debt.

The report – “Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles” – draws on data from 5,000 individuals ordered to work off their fines during a one-year period from 2013 to 2014.

During that period, the report says LA County required 8 million hours of community service work, equivalent to 4,900 paid jobs. Government agencies received 3 million hours of labor, equal to 1,800 paid jobs.

“When people are able to comply with mandatory community service, the result is the extraction of millions of hours of unpaid, unprotected labor from those most subject to unemployment and work instability,” says the study.

It’s not uncommon for a judge to order someone to perform community service hours, with orders imposed in lieu of jail amounting to a median 100 hours in LA County – three weeks of full-time work, according to the study. In at least 25% of these cases, people were ordered to work 155 hours or more.

The study authors also report the amount of work ordered often does not match the dollar value of the fines imposed. They note the median work order for a traffic ticket was 51 hours for a $520 violation.

Community service hours often mimic or make worse the problem of having court debt, forcing low-income people to face harsher penalties for not completing those hours under the court’s deadlines.

In traffic court, which sees mainly minor infractions, 89% of those assigned community service were people of color. Broken down further, 81% were Latinos, 8% were black, 9% were white and 2% were listed as Asian, according to the study.

The study’s authors offer several alternatives to work hours, like a debt cap based on income, reducing policing or prosecution for nonserious, nonviolent offenses and seeking alternatives that do not penalize low-income people.

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