For some people in Texas, community service sentencing seems to provide an alternative to harsh jail time or hefty fines that many criminal defendants cannot afford. Community service is often touted as a humane alternative that poses fewer restrictions for people convicted of smaller offenses, often misdemeanors. However, a study by UCLA’s Labor Center and School of Law indicates that community service sentencing can also exacerbate some of the existing problems of the criminal justice system, especially for people with low incomes and communities of color. The study examined 5,000 cases between 2013 and 2014 when people were sentenced to community service.
During the period studied, people were ordered to perform 8 million hours of labor as community service. This is the equivalent of 4,900 paid employees’ work. At the same time, government agencies received 3 million labor hours, equal to the work of 1,800 people. The study points out structural problems with this reliance on people convicted of crimes to perform a significant amount of labor. Government agencies are less likely to hire people to fulfill these functions, leading to more unemployment and fewer opportunities. The need for this labor could also encourage more criminal prosecution and sentencing in cases that might otherwise have been dismissed.
In addition, community service can have a heavy price for people who are sentenced. People are often sentenced to weeks of full-time labor to pay off their fines, and this can prevent them from working for pay, worsening the situation of people living in poverty. The study also noted that this labor is poorly compensated in relation to the fines being paid off.
Any type of criminal conviction could potentially interfere with housing, education and employment. People facing criminal charges may consult with a defense attorney about strategies to counter police allegations and avoid a conviction.