Abstract: It's a Debtor's Prison Situation: How Court-Ordered Community Service Perpetuates Racial and Economic Inequality in the Los Angeles County Criminal Justice System (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

It's a Debtor's Prison Situation: How Court-Ordered Community Service Perpetuates Racial and Economic Inequality in the Los Angeles County Criminal Justice System

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Independence BR A, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Melanie Sonsteng-Person, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
Noah Zatz, JD, Professor of Law, University of California, Los Angeles, CA
Tia Koonse, JD, Legal and Policy Research Manager, University of California, Los Angeles, CA
Lucero Herrera, MS, Senior Research Analyst, University of California, Los Angeles, CA
Background: Courts in California increasingly order community service for nonviolent and minor offenders, assigning a specified number of hours of free work performed at nonprofit and government agencies. While community service has been used as both an alternative to incarceration and in lieu of paying fines, successfully completing community service can be challenging and often results in non-completion. Invoked as a promising way to avoid incarcerating poor and indigent people for criminal justice debts they cannot pay, almost nothing is known about how community service functions in practice. This study seeks to examine what happens when the criminal justice system compels labor from unincarcerated workers.

Methods: We employed an exploratory, sequential, mixed methods design that included qualitative interviews with public defenders and traffic court attorneys (N=12) and community service workers (CSWs) (N=20) in Los Angeles County and a secondary quantitative analysis of survey data from CSWs (N=500) derived from a comprehensive de-identified roster. The roster was produced and maintained by one of several non-profit intermediaries that LA Superior Court uses to place and monitor CSWs. Phase 1 of the study qualitatively explored the phenomenon of community service and identified themes. Phase 2 used quantitative analysis to elucidate the prevalence of the identified themes.

Results: Qualitative findings suggest multiple barriers to completion of community service requirements, such as the number of hours assigned, time given to complete the hours, fees required to sign up for community service, transportation, disabilities, work requirements, and personal obligations such as school, family, or work. One public defender noted, “we are incarcerating people for being poor.” These barriers drive CSWs deeper into debt and results in new warrants that place defendants at risk for reincarceration. In quantitative analysis, 16% of survey respondents with criminal sentences 26% faced probation violation and revocation, or a bench warrant (22%), for failure to complete community service in some form. In traffic court, 31% of cases resulted in some form of sanction such as a failure to appear (7%), collections (9%), bench warrant (.3%), or license revocation (25%). Furthermore, it was found that economic and racially marginalized communities perform the majority of this free labor, and face the accompanying threat of incarceration or other sanctions. More than 90% of those in our study who performed community service as a result of traffic infractions were people of color.

 Implications: The outcomes of this study indicate that while community service can act as an alternative to incarceration when barriers are minimal and the individual is able to complete the work, this is often a rare outcome. The inability to complete community service based on the systematic barriers can have detrimental results, particular for racial/ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged communities. The vast majority of community service sanctions arise from traffic stops, which are notoriously subject to racial profiling and over-policing of communities of color. As such, social workers and activists alike should seek to advocate for policy changes to decrease barriers to completion.