For many people in West Virginia, community service is seen as a better, lighter sentence that can help people avoid jail time after a conviction. However, one study published by UCLA’s Labor Center and School of Law noted that community service sentences can actually pose significant problems for some defendants, especially low-income people of color who cannot afford to pay fines. Therefore, they are forced to choose between jail time or weeks of full-time, unpaid labor that can worsen poverty and affect other members of their family.
Community service is often touted as a humane approach that is more forgiving than fines, especially for people living in poverty. However, the study argues that the effects of community service sentences largely mimic those of fines and court debt. Researchers examined 5,000 people in Los Angeles County required to perform community service as an alternative to paying a fine between 2013 and 2014. The county required people to perform 8 million hours of community service, the equivalent of 4,900 paid jobs, and various government agencies received 3 million hours of unpaid work, equivalent to 1,800 paid employees. In particular, the study noted that the use of unpaid labor also exacerbates problems with unemployment as governments can look to sentenced individuals for labor that would normally require hiring workers.
The study also noted that the number of hours of community service required often far exceeded the labor value of the fine. People with a $520 traffic ticket, for example, were ordered to 51 hours of community service. In around one-quarter of cases, people were sentenced to over 155 hours of community service.
Many people have highlighted the inequities of the American criminal justice system. Those facing criminal charges may help to protect themselves by working with a criminal defense attorney to challenge police and prosecution allegations.