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Community service burdens poor defendants

Massachusetts readers might be interested to learn that court-ordered community service harms low-income defendants of color, according to a new study. The study, which is entitled "Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles," was published by the UCLA Labor Center and School of Law on Oct. 16.

Researchers analyzed data on 5,000 Los Angeles defendants who were ordered to complete community service because they couldn't pay court fines. They found that community service hours disproportionately impact people of color. For example, 81% of defendants assigned community service in traffic court were Latino, 8% were black, 9% were white and 2% were Asian. They also found that judges often ordered defendants to complete more community service hours than the dollar value of the original fine imposed. For instance, a median of 51 hours was assigned to pay off traffic fines of $520. In L.A. County, the median number of hours assigned for all violations was 100 hours. Meanwhile, 25% of defendants were ordered to work at least 155 hours to pay off their fines.

While community service is supposed to be a reasonable alternative to jail for defendants who can't pay their court fines, the study found that the amount of hours imposed can an place undue burden on poor communities. It can also expose defendants to steeper fines if they are unable to complete their hours by the court's deadline. The authors of the study say that it might be better for communities to introduce a debt cap based on defendants' income and reduce enforcement or prosecution for low-level, non-violent crimes.

Individuals charged with motor vehicle offenses or other crimes may be able to fight the allegations with the help of a criminal defense attorney. By reviewing the evidence, legal counsel might find grounds to get the charges reduced or dismissed.

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