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Community service sentencing can reinforce inequity

People in New Jersey often think of community service sentences as providing a win-win situation. People who are convicted of crimes, usually misdemeanors with fines attached, may be able to work through their sentence without harsh jail time or hefty fines they cannot afford. At the same time, society can benefit from their labor. However, a study released by the Labor Center and School of Law at UCLA indicates that community service sentencing does not avoid the overall inequities and problems with the criminal justice system. In particular, researchers say that people serving these sentences may suffer many of the same effects associated with heavy court debt.

Researchers noted that community service sentencing particularly affects people with low incomes and communities of color. While it is touted as a humane alternative to fines and jail time, the study said that defendants’ labor is undervalued. When compared to the cost of paying the fine, people may be sentenced to work many hours to pay it off, driving down the cost of their labor per hour. In addition, the researchers said that during the study period, 2013 to 2014, people in Los Angeles County were sentenced to 8 million hours of community service. This represents work that could have been done by 4,900 paid employees, exacerbating unemployment in surrounding communities and encouraging more prosecution and dependence on community service labor.

In addition, defendants themselves often need to work for weeks at full-time hours in order to complete their sentences. This prevents them from working for pay, factors that can make unemployment and poverty more likely, especially for marginalized people.

Any kind of criminal conviction or sentence can have a major impact on a person’s future opportunities. A criminal defense attorney may help people challenge allegations by police and work to prevent a conviction.