UCLA Labor Center

Get to Work or Go To Jail

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© Peter Thoeny, CC BY-NC-SA

2016 / Noah Zatz, Tia Koonse, Theresa Zhen, Lucero Herrera, Han Lu, Steven Shafer, and Blake Valenta

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When many people consider work and the criminal justice system, they commonly consider how difficult it is for people coming out of jail to find work. Yet, a recent UCLA Labor Center report, Get to Work or Go To Jail: Workplace Rights Under Threat, goes further by exploring the ways in which the criminal justice system can also lock workers on probation, parole, facing court-ordered debt, or child support debt into bad jobs. Because these workers face the threat of incarceration for unemployment, the report finds that they cannot afford to refuse a job, quit a job, or to challenge their employers.

Among other findings, the report concludes:

  • Nearly 5 million Americans and 400,000 Californians are under probation or parole
  • Many of these workers may be stripped of standard labor protections such such as minimum wage and workers compensation
  • On any given day, about 9,000 nationwide are in prison or jail for violating the probation or parole requirement to hold a job.
  • Every year in Los Angeles, 50,000-100,000 people must perform unpaid, court-order community service. Some debtors perform many hundreds of hours of unpaid labor, the equivalent to several months of full-time work.
  • African Americans or Latinos account for 2/3 of those incarcerated for violating parole or probation conditions related to work or debt.
  • The majority of fathers who were incarcerated for failing to pay child support worked during the previous year, in fact 95% of fathers reported having been employed prior to incarceration. Of these fathers, 85% of these fathers lived in or near poverty.

This report was written in collaboration with the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and a A New Way of Life Reentry Project.

Related Links:

Free Labor In The Shadow of Mass Incarceration

A New Peonage?: Pay, Work, or Go To Jail in Contemporary Child Support Enforcement and Beyond

Not Just a Ferguson Problem – How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California

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Get to Work or Go To Jail