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L.A.’s Court-Ordered Community Supervision Enslaves and Impoverishes

by Matt Clarke

When a 33-year-old man was cited for littering for tossing trash and beer cans on a South Los Angeles sidewalk in 2013, an interpreter helped him plead no contest, and he was fined just $100 because the court recognized his inability to pay more. In lieu of additional fines he was also ordered to perform eight hours of community service. Yet by the time his unpaid bill was sent to a collection agency three years later, it had somehow ballooned to $1,340.

What happened?

An October 2019 study by UCLA Law School professor Noah Zatz and the UCLA Labor Center sheds light on the answer: the court-ordered community service program in Los Angeles County – originally conceived as a way to allow some defendants who could not afford to pay court fees and fines to avoid jail by working off their court debt – actually operates “a system of unregulated and coercive labor” that “worsens the effect of criminal justice debt and displaces paid jobs.”

About 100,000 people register every year for “mandatory community service,” up 25 percent from a decade ago – a volume that UCLA Labor Center senior research analyst Lucero Herrera called “staggering.” It represents one percent of the county’s entire population, meaning that in the average resident’s lifetime, he or she could accumulate a two-thirds chance of ending up assigned to perform community service work.

Of course, those with the means to pay their fines never enter the system in the first place. For the rest, according to the report, the system forces poor people to work without health insurance or other benefits, often under unsafe conditions or for despotic bosses who threaten them with jail time should they complain. Worse, like the litterbug with a huge collection agency debt, the arrangement does not cancel everything owed. Many of the fees the legislature has tacked on to court cases must be paid in cash, and failure to pay on time can result in additional fines. Thus, a person who receives a traffic ticket can emerge from hundreds of hours of forced community service labor still owing hundreds of dollars in fees – an amount that rapidly balloons if not paid off promptly.

Judges assign defendants to community service for misdemeanors and traffic violations. They are sent either to community labor – hard outdoor work typically assigned as a number of eight-hour days that must be completed in full-day increments – or community service jobs, which involve lighter work that may be indoors and is usually assigned as a number of hours with some scheduling flexibility. Typical labor assignments include the CalTrans highway trash-removal program or the Metro graffiti-removal program, while service jobs might entail helping out at Goodwill or the Salvation Army.

Once assigned to community service, a defendant becomes a “volunteer” and reports to a referral agency called a “volunteer center.” The center in turn has agreements to provide volunteers to worksites. Based on documentation received from worksites, the centers track the time the volunteer works and reports it to the court. Courts and the county probation department provide no direct supervision and little oversight of volunteer centers, which are granted substantial discretion in their interactions with volunteers. As a result, the UCLA report says, the system operates “outside the rules and beneath the standards designed to protect workers from mistreatment and exploitation.”

The volunteer centers were originally paid under contract by the county’s probation department. In 2004, the contracts were canceled and the centers began generating funds by charging fees to defendants for everything from registering to work to changing worksites. The fees amounted to nearly $5 million in fiscal year 2014. The UCLA analyzed 5,000 cases from that year for its report, with detailed information on 600 cases gathered from interviews with defendants, public defenders, program administrators and worksite supervisors.

Although defendants face jail time if they fail to provide the labor, their legal classification as “volunteers” denies them protections routinely given to other workers – they have no right to employer-provided health insurance, and employers are exempted from providing many protections required by state and federal statutes. If injured on the job, for example, volunteers have no right to workers’ compensation. In practice, they are often denied safety equipment and ordered to do more laborious and dangerous jobs than paid workers they toil alongside. If they question or complain about workplace conditions – even sexual harassment – supervisors may threaten to send their volunteer center a negative report that could land the defendant in jail for failure to complete his or her required hours of service.

“Get to work or go to jail,” is a common threat, according to UCLA Labor Center Legal and Policy Research Manager Tia Koonse. “It has a chilling effect on asking for accommodations, asking for a meal or bathroom break, asking for your rights.”

To sentence a defendant to community service, a court must first find inability to pay a fine. The median number of work hours assigned to criminal court defendants is 100. That’s equivalent to about three weeks of full-time work. In traffic court, the median is 51 hours.

But having to devote many hours to forced labor within tight court deadlines can cause a defendant to lose a paying job or be unable to provide care for a child. Further, the base fine comprises an average of only 20 percent of the total assessed debt.

The balance is added by the volunteer center and by judges assessing fees for a State Penalty Fund that supports court services – security, court operations, night court funding, alcohol abuse prevention, administrative screening, domestic violence services, laboratory services, installment payments, emergency air transportation and citation processing – regardless of whether those services were used in a particular case.

Courts can also assess an additional $300 fee for failing to promptly pay the initial base fine. That is why criminal court debt was a median of $1,778 while median traffic court debt was $520 for defendants sentenced to community service – making it a “fundamentally coercive system,” the report concludes, one that is “situated at the intersection of mass incarceration and economic inequality, with the most profound effects on communities of color.”

Eighty-nine percent of traffic court defendants ordered to perform community service were people of color. Seventy-eight percent of criminal court defendants sentenced to mandatory community service could not afford an attorney despite facing jail time. Some were assigned public defenders, but many – like the South LA litterbug – were not. Sixteen percent required an interpreter due to lack of English proficiency.

Almost 80 percent of all community service orders resulted from vehicle-related offenses, including 68 percent of criminal court orders. The most common charge was DUI, followed by documentation issues – such as driving without a license or registration – and improper operation. Nearly all were misdemeanors.

In traffic court, of course, nearly all cases are vehicle-related. Fifty-three percent involved vehicle operation – especially speeding – while 25 percent involved documentation. A handful of non-vehicular charges included public intoxication, transit fare evasion, littering and similar offenses.

Community service requirements can be considerable even for minor crimes. One man ticketed for talking on a cell phone while driving was given three months to perform 85 hours of community service or pay $681. Another defendant cited for crossing a double yellow line on a freeway was ordered to pay a $595 fine or perform 65 hours of community service and pay $139 within one month.

There are few legal criteria in criminal court to stipulate when judges should order community service instead of payment of a fine. The drunk driving statute indicates that two days in jail can be replaced with ten days (80 hours) of community service. But for other defendants, courts have wide discretion over who is permitted to substitute community service work for fines and how much community service they are required to perform.

Worksites also have a great deal of discretion in choosing volunteers, often basing rejections on disability or gender – which would be prohibited by federal law for paid workers – as well as a defendant’s prior criminal history. Some worksites bus volunteers to a location once a day, early in the morning. If they are late or the bus is full, they miss out on that day’s labor.

Because community service volunteers often labor alongside paid workers, their presence raises the question of job displacement – are they being used to replace paid workers, depressing the labor market? In fiscal year 2014, the county’s courts ordered an estimated 8.5 million hours of community service. That’s the equivalent of 4,900 full-time jobs, with a value of at least $171 million in wages. The total includes 3.25 million hours valued at a minimum of $87.9 million performed on government worksites.

“It is important to recognize that court-ordered community service actually undermines the security of all workers – not just the so-called volunteers,” Koonse said. “This system replaces what could be decently paid, unionized jobs with free, unprotected labor.”

Failure to perform community service or pay court debt triggers serious consequences. First, heavy fees escalate the debt. The defendant’s driver’s license can be impounded for 30 days or suspended indefinitely. Court debt can be turned over to collection agencies, and an arrest warrant can also be issued. Of the cases studied from criminal court, 19 percent eventually involved a citation for violation of probation, a revocation of probation or a bench warrant for arrest due to failure to complete community service.

The report recommended transforming the community service program into “a jobs pipeline,” in which participants obtain work skills and a fair wage so their court debt is paid off while also allowing them to keep “enough income to meet basic needs.”

Also recommended was capping court debts based on an individual’s ability to pay, as well as reforming the community service program to provide fair labor protections to volunteer workers.

Additionally, the report called out Los Angeles County for over-policing, especially traffic stops and searches in communities of color, and issuing citations for so-called “quality of life” crimes such as panhandling and littering. The report urged county officials to find alternatives to incarceration and court debt.

Finally, the report recommended an end to registration fees charged by the volunteer centers, because “workers should not have to pay to work for free.” 



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