Judges in New Jersey and around the country often order criminal defendants to perform community service when they do not have the financial resources to pay fines and court fees. Community service is intended to be a humane alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, but a recent University of California, Los Angeles study suggests that ordering individuals convicted of minor crimes to perform unpaid labor is unfairly harsh on the poor and communities of color.

The UCLA researchers based their findings on 5,000 criminal cases involving defendants who were ordered to perform community service in Los Angeles County over a 12-month period. These offenders were ordered to perform an average of 100 hours of unpaid work, but some of them worked without pay for 155 or more hours. The more than 8 million hours of work performed could have provided about 4,900 low-income families with a paycheck according to the researchers.

The study also reveals that municipalities benefit financially from community service and Latino communities are particularly hard hit. Work performed by criminal offenders would otherwise be assigned to municipal employees, which would cost more than collecting fines could bring in. Almost 9 out of 10 of the offenders ordered to perform community service were people of color, and 81% of them were Latino. Alternatives to unpaid labor recommended by the researchers include an income-based cap on fines and less rigorous policing.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may urge prosecutors to consider alternatives to incarceration when their clients are accused of committing minor crimes, but they could suggest that fines and community service orders be appropriate to the offense in question. When their clients have not been in trouble with the law previously and sincerely regret their actions, attorneys may ask prosecutors to consider probation as an alternative to more severe penalties.