UCLA Labor Center

Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles

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2019 / Lucero Herrera, Tia Koonse, Melanie Sonsteng-Person, Noah Zatz

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Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles is the first study to analyze a large-scale system of court-ordered community service in the contemporary United States. It finds that court-ordered community service functions as a system of unregulated and coercive labor, which worsens the effects of criminal justice debt and displaces paid jobs.

Among other discoveries, the report finds:

  • Over 100,000 people in LA County register to perform mandated community service each year. Because they are classified as volunteers, workers do not receive wages or labor protections from safety hazards, discrimination, or harassment.
  • Workers face widespread barriers to completing their community service. Over two thirds of people from criminal court and about two in five from traffic court did not complete their hours in time. Their inability to finish often led to penalties that court-ordered community service was established to avoid.
  • Community service annually supplants approximately 4,900 jobs in LA County, replacing 1,800 positions in the government sector alone.

Report authors recommend rolling back the threats of jail and court debt that force people into community service; expanding alternative sanctions that do not rely on forced, extractive labor; and transforming punitive mandatory community service into economic opportunity through paying jobs.

 

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