_ UCLA Labor Center study finds county relies on laborers – largely
people of color – threatened with debts and jail to do work that
would otherwise be paid. _
A clean up of the Los Angeles River. Defendants sentenced to labor
are generally considered ‘volunteers’ with few rights. ,
UniversalImagesGroup/UIG via Getty Images
Los Angeles [[link removed]] 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
[[link removed]], 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
[[link removed]] 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
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
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
it’s a punishment that exacerbates inequality and creates an
unregulated labor force where workers are vulnerable to abuse, the
“There’s this invisible economy that is being produced out of the
criminal justice system,” said Noah Zatz, a UCLA law professor.
“Normally, it’s unconstitutional to threaten people with jail if
they don’t work … This is a government-run system of extraction
that is targeting communities of color and low-income communities.”
There’s been growing recognition of the unjust systems that send
low-income people to jail because they can’t afford to pay municipal
Community service has received little scrutiny but operates in a
similar manner by creating work mandates for people who can’t pay
fees for traffic infractions or other offenses, Zatz said.
While defendants sentenced to labor are generally considered
“volunteers” with few rights, they are also frequently assigned to
positions alongside paid workers, sometimes manual labor such as
graffiti removal, trash pickup and janitorial work. In LA, people most
often work for places like CalTrans, the state transit agency, local
parks and municipal departments, Goodwill, the Salvation Army and
local community centers.
If they experience discrimination, sexual harassment, abuse, injuries
or other forms of mistreatment on the job, they have few options, the
“Get to work or go to jail” is a looming threat, which means
workers struggle to speak up, said Tia Koonse, the legal and policy
research manager at the UCLA Labor Center. “It has a chilling effect
on asking for accommodations, asking for a meal or bathroom break,
asking for your rights.”
Spokespeople for LA county courts and a local agency involved in
community service placement declined to comment.
Selena Lopez, 24, said she was forced to do service at a community
center as punishment for a misdemeanor case in 2016. At the time, her
father had been deported and her mother had died, and she was
struggling with addiction, leading to minor run-ins with the law.
She said she was trying to get back on her feet and finish school, but
that the community service system derailed her. Then 21 years old,
Lopez had to clean the kitchen at a not-for-profit organization and
was surrounded by men who sexually harassed her, she said. The
cleaning fluids she was using also made her sick, she said.
“I’m in a situation that is not good for my health, that is not
safe for me,” she said, recalling that when she complained to
supervisors, they threatened to revoke her hours or say she didn’t
complete her mandatory service. “I had to choose – do I get this
done, or walk away and lose everything?”
Lopez had to complete more than 30 days of service, which forced her
to put her education on hold.
“Do I want to be in school or do I want to be in jail? I had this
haunting me every day,” she said, adding, “Is community service
doing good out here, or is it causing more harm?”
The UCLA report cited anecdotes of community service workers facing
verbal and physical harassment harassment, with one saying “they
treat people like trash”, and another reporting a male supervisor
inappropriately touching women.
The authors recommend that the courts reduce the threats of jail and
debt that force people into service jobs in the first place, noting
that traffic stops and other policing of low-level offenses are
plagued by racial profiling
They also support other sentencing alternatives that don’t rely on
forced labor and argue that if punitive community service is used, it
should lead to paid jobs and opportunities meant to help people.
Lopez, who is now studying communications and an advocate for the
rights of incarcerated people, said people caught up in the system are
“trying to make our wrongs right” and need support, not unpaid
jobs. She said she hoped more people speak up: “I know I’m not the
only one. There are so many people going through this.”
_Sam Levin is a correspondent for Guardian US, based in Los
Angeles. Click here
[[link removed]] for
Sam's public key. Twitter @SamTLevin