Work, Pay, Or Go To Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service

In Los Angeles

by Lucero Herrera, Tia Koonse, Melanie Sonsteng-Person, Noah Zatz, UCLA Labor Center [excerpts] httpss://

This is the first study to analyze a large-scale system of court-ordered community service in the US. 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.

Court-ordered community service was developed nearly a half-century ago as an alternative penalty that, instead of incarcerating people, allowed them to live free, keep their employment, and contribute to their families and communities. That was the context for LA County’s establishment of its Court-Referred Community Service program in 1975. More recently, there has been a national explosion in criminal fines and fees, including in California. Fines and fees can lead to incarceration if people do not pay, even though many simply lack the funds to do so.

Court debt has been a major focus of reform efforts throughout the country. Last year, the American Bar Association endorsed principles developed by a national task force of state court administrators and chief justices, stating that court debt should not be used as “a revenue-generating arm” that substitutes for government funding of courts. San Francisco and Alameda Counties recently eliminated fees related to probation debt and absolved $32 million in unpaid court debt. This year, LA County began a feasibility study to eliminate court fees and fines within its purview. SB 144, which failed this year in the legislature, would have repealed administrative fees that fund the criminal legal system and eliminate existing debts.

Many reformers have identified community service as an alternative way to “work off” court debt. In previous research, we identified this connection between the threat of jail for nonpayment and the alternative of working off debt as an example of a broader pattern of practices we called “get to work or go to jail.” This report widens that lens to bring into focus the county’s criminal and traffic courts, where community service is imposed as both a way to work off court debt and a sep¬arate component of a criminal sentence.

LA County operates the largest jail system in the world, booking over 100,000 people into the system each year and incarcerating about 17,000 people each night. Yet surprisingly little is known about the effects or effectiveness of court-ordered community service programs in LA or nationally. Available research has focused on small-scale, tightly managed demonstration projects rather than routine, large-scale implementation throughout a court system. Our research found that all 50 states authorize court-ordered community service in at least some criminal cases, and at least 36 states use community service as an alternative to court debt in some circumstances, with many states actively considering bills to expand this.

Until recently, LA County did not systematically track or collect any information about how its courts use community service. Only when the county began exploring some changes to its system did it conduct a survey of the network of 10 nonprofit “volunteer centers” that serve as intermediaries between the Superior Court and the placement sites where people perform community service. Using public records requests, we obtained the results of this survey and other administrative documents, and they provided the starting point for the research underlying this report.

These documents show that over 100,000 people each year register to perform court-ordered community service through the volunteer centers, a 25% increase from a decade earlier. These figures and our data excluded those who were ordered to perform community service but never registered with a volunteer center.

In 2006, the court reported that 87% of those performing community service for criminal court did so through a volunteer center. Although the centers were once funded by contracts with the Probation Department, that arrangement was discontinued in 2004. Since then, people ordered to perform community service must pay a registration fee directly to the volunteer centers. In the 2013–2014 fiscal year, those fees amounted to almost $5 million.

The court’s survey of volunteer centers provided limited information about the total number of people referred and amount of fees paid. La Mirada Volunteer Center, however, provided the court with a roster listing each of the roughly 5,000 individuals, or about 5% of the countywide total, who registered during the one-year period from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014. This roster enabled us to conduct a much deeper, more individualized analysis of hours assigned by the court, work sites assigned by the center, and, most importantly, underlying legal case numbers that we used to retrieve and analyze a representative sample of 600 individual court case files. This analysis gave us detailed information about why mandatory community service was imposed, what else was going on in each case, how much people eventually worked or paid in fines and fees, and whether people faced punishment for not completing community service. Unless otherwise specified, figures in this report refer to the population identified by this one volunteer center roster. The analysis does not capture people who were referred to the center but never registered. More generally, the center’s population may differ from those referred to other centers because of regional variations within the county; for instance, not all court houses hear both criminal and traffic cases.

In criminal and traffic courts combined, community service orders result overwhelmingly (78%) from vehicle-related offenses. The prominence of vehicle offenses is especially striking because of the likelihood of racial profiling in police decisions to make initial stops, to ticket, and to choose neighborhoods for DUI (driving under the influence) checkpoints and other tactics.

In criminal court, 68% of community service orders derive from vehicle-related charges; proportions for violent crimes, property crimes, and drug crimes were low (see Figure 1).5 Drunk driving led,6 followed by vehicle documentation (such as driving without a license or registration) and improper operation (e.g., illegal U-turns or failure to signal). Almost all cases involve only misdemeanor, not felony, convictions.

In traffic court, vehicle operation, especially speeding, dominates charges (53% of total) leading to mandatory community service. The handful of “other” charges involve public order offenses, like public intoxication or public transit fare evasion.

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