New Report on Court-Ordered Community Service as a Coercive Labor System
Date:  11-18-2019

An Overview of Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles
From the key findings of the UCLA Labor Center report Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles:

1. Los Angeles County operates a large-scale system of court-ordered, unpaid, and unprotected labor outside of its jails that involves about 100,000 people and millions of hours of work each year. Court-ordered community service workers labor alongside paid employees who perform identical tasks. As “volunteers,” they receive neither wages nor labor protections from safety hazards, workplace injuries, discrimination, or harassment, let alone social security, child care assistance, or other supports for blue-collar workers.

2. Court-ordered community service extracts weeks and sometimes months of unpaid work. a. In criminal court, community service orders imposed in lieu of jail required people to work a median 100 hours. In at least 25% of these cases, people were ordered to work 155 hours or more—about four weeks of full-time work.3 b. Community service orders to absolve court debt required people to work a median 96 hours in lieu of an average $1,778 in fines and fees. c. Even for just a traffic ticket, the median work order was a week and a half (51 hours) to work off $520. c. Even for just a traffic ticket, the median work order was a week and a half (51 hours) to work off $520.

3. Community service enables government agencies and private entities—nonprofit and forprofit alike—to avoid hiring thousands of workers. a. Extrapolating countywide from our data, mandatory community service required people in Los Angeles County to perform an estimated 8 million hours of unpaid work over the course of a year—the equivalent of 4,900 paid jobs. b. Government agencies received an estimated 3 million hours of labor, the equivalent of 1,800 full-time jobs.

4. People face widespread barriers to completing mandatory community service, with serious consequences. a. About two-thirds (66%) of people from criminal court and two-fifths (38%) from traffic court did not complete their community service by the initial deadline. b. The threat of jail is real. In criminal cases, nearly one in five (19%) in our study faced probation violation and revocation or a bench warrant for failure to complete court-ordered community service, and 12% were sent to collections. c. Even in traffic court, where jail is rare, court-ordered community service workers feared incarceration for not completing their assignments. Ten percent were eventually sent to collections or otherwise sanctioned for failing to trade their fines and fees for work. d. Mandatory community service is not a complete alternative to debt. People must pay a fee to a referral agency simply to obtain a community service placement. Further, not all court fees can be worked off, so even those who complete their hours may still face debt. In criminal court, the majority (86%) still made payments averaging $323—a significant sum for many. Likewise, in traffic court, 40% of those assigned community service still made some payments. Continue reading >>>