Exclusive: study finds county relies on laborers largely people of color threatened with debts and jail to do work that would otherwise be paid
Los Angeles courts force roughly 100,000 people to do weeks and even months of community service each year, exposing some of them to exploitative and hazardous working conditions without enjoying basic labor rights and protections, according to a first-of-its-kind study.
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers analyzing court-mandated community service also found that government departments and not-for-profit organizations rely on workers threatened with debts and jail time to complete labor that would otherwise be paid and that those affected are overwhelmingly people of color.
The UCLA Labor Center findings, released on Wednesday and shared with the Guardian, show:
People in LA county are ordered to perform an estimated total of 8m hours of unpaid work over a year, the equivalent of 4,900 paid jobs. Government agencies receive an estimated 3m hours of free labor, replacing 1,800 jobs.
People struggle to complete their work by imposed deadlines, and in criminal court, nearly one in five people sentenced to community service ultimately face a probation violation or arrest warrant as a result.
While community service is supposed to be an alternative to debt, most criminal defendants are still forced to make payments averaging $323. People also often have to pay to work for free through initial fees to receive their community service referrals, which can be more than $100.
In traffic court, which sentences people to community service for minor infractions, 89% of defendants are people of color.
The new paper, the first in-depth study of these kinds of sentences in the US, presents court-ordered service as a type of legal coercion and labor exploitation, comparable to wage theft. While community service has traditionally been considered a progressive alternative to imprisonment, in LA county, which has the largest jail system in the world, its a punishment that exacerbates inequality and creates an unregulated labor force where workers are vulnerable to abuse, the authors said.