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Open Access Publications from the University of California

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

  • Author(s): Herrera, Lucero
  • Koonse, Tia
  • Sonsteng-Person, Melanie
  • Zatz, Noah
  • et al.

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Each year in Los Angeles County, about 100,000 people are forced to work for free. We refer here not to wage theft or labor trafficking but to a formal government practice that uses the power of the criminal legal system to require people to work without pay. This practice is called “community service,” a euphemism for a fundamentally coercive system situated at the intersection of mass incarceration and economic inequality, with the most profound effects on communities of color. This report provides the first in-depth, empirical study of a large-scale system of court-ordered community service in the contemporary United States.

Court-ordered community service is typically understood as a progressive alternative to incarceration for people who would otherwise face jail time and/or court debt they cannot afford to pay. However, it also functions as a distinct system of labor that operates outside the rules and beneath the standards designed to protect workers from mistreatment and exploitation.

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