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Study Finds Community Service Harms Poor Defendants

Court-ordered community service in California and other states is supposed to be a helpful alternative for defendants who cannot pay fines and fees. However, according to a new study, the practice unfairly impacts low-income people of color and increases the burden of court debt.

Researchers at the UCLA Labor Center and School of Law examined data on 5,000 L.A. County defendants ordered to do community service in lieu of paying court fines from 2013 until 2014. They found that people of color made up the vast majority of defendants who were assigned community service hours. For example, 81% of those mandated to complete community service to pay traffic court fines were Latino, 8% were black and 2% were Asian. In comparison, only 9% were white. They also found that the number of community service hours assigned often exceeded the assessed fines' dollar value. Specifically, judges assigned a median of 51 hours of work to pay off $520 in traffic fines.

According to the study, defendants who are unable to perform their community service by the court's deadline face harsher penalties, including higher fines. Those who are able to complete it provide L.A. County with around 8 million hours of unpaid, unprotected labor each year. Three million of those hours, or the equivalent of 1,800 full-time jobs, are performed on behalf of government agencies. The authors of the study said this is an unfair burden to place on poorer communities that already face high unemployment rates. To remedy the situation, they recommend that courts adopt a debt cap based on each defendant's income level. They also believe that communities should reduce enforcement and prosecution of low-level, nonviolent offenses.

An attorney with experience with criminal defense may help defendants who face community service or other penalties for minor offenses. Legal counsel could review the case and explain all the defense options that are available.