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

This report provides the findings from the first in-depth study of a large-scale court-ordered community service system in modern-day America. The authors examined the experiences of about 5,000 people who were ordered to perform community service by the Los Angeles Superior Court between 2013 and 2014. The report highlights the ways this community service system fails to serve as a true alternative to the payment of monetary fines and incarceration or provide the necessities and accommodations that would allow participants to successfully complete their mandatory work term.

You can read the full text of the report here

Key findings
  • Every year, approximately 100,000 people work millions of hours through Los Angeles County’s court-ordered community service programs. Participants perform the same work duties as paid employees without the same labor protections or support benefits. 
  • In at least one-fourth of criminal cases, people are mandated to work at least 155 hours to offset jail time, which is about four weeks of full-time employment. 
  • About 96 court-ordered community service hours are used to satisfy an average of $1,778 in court fines and fees and a median of 51 community service hours is necessary to work off a $520 traffic ticket. 
  • People worked about 3 million hours of community service for government agencies which equates to 1,800 full-time jobs. 
  • About 66 percent of people from criminal court and 38 percent from traffic court did not complete their community service hours by the initial deadline. 
  • 19 percent of people involved in the study for this report faced a probation violation or revocation or a bench warrant for failing to complete their community service hours; 12 percent were sent to collections. 
  • People who were ordered to complete community service to satisfy fines and fees for their traffic cases faced jail time if they did not complete their hours. 
  • 86 percent of people with criminal cases who were ordered to perform community service still paid an average of $323 in fines and fees. 40 percent of people in traffic court still had to pay something in addition to completing their work hours. 
  • 78 percent of people sentenced to community service in criminal court either had a public defender or lacked legal representation and 89 percent of those in traffic court belong to a community of color. 
  • Curb the threat of jail and court debt that forces people into performing community service.
  • Provide additional alternatives to fines and fees and incarceration beyond community service.
  • Transform mandatory community service into wage paying jobs. 
Lucero Herrera, Tia Koonse, Melanie Sonsteng-Person, UCLA Labor Center; Noah Zatz, UCLA School of Law
UCLA Labor Center and UCLA School of Law