Community service sentencing may contribute to poverty

For many in Georgia, community service sentencing in criminal cases seems to present a more humane alternative to heavy fines or jail time, especially for people living in poverty. However, one study by the UCLA Labor Center and School of Law challenges these assumptions. It argues that the widespread use of community service sentencing devalues labor and may wind up exacerbating unemployment, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. It can even produce similar effects to court debt for large fines, especially because people sentenced to community service may need to provide weeks of unpaid labor to pay off their citations.

The study examined 5,000 cases of people ordered to perform community service in lieu of paying a fine between 2013 and 2014. The study noted that the county required 8 million hours of community service work during this time period, the equal of paying 4,900 employees in paid jobs. Government agencies received 3 million hours of labor through these sentences that could have been performed by 1,800 paid workers. As a result, researchers noted that government agencies may come to depend on the supply of labor provided by community service sentences in the criminal justice system rather than hiring sufficient staff, thus contributing to unemployment.

In addition, many people sentenced to community service can ill afford to work for weeks without pay. They may lose jobs or opportunities because they are not available for work while performing their community service hours, especially for shift-based work with irregular hours. The study also questioned the lengthy sentences imposed, especially when used to pay off relatively small fines.

A criminal conviction can interfere with opportunities for housing, education and employment. People facing criminal allegations may work with a defense attorney to counter police narratives and aim to avoid a conviction.

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