Many people in Minnesota see community service sentences as a humane alternative to hefty fines or jail time, especially for people living in poverty and convicted of relatively minor matters. However, one study contests the idea that these sentences improve people’s lives. A report issued by UCLA’s Labor Center and School of Law says that community service sentences for criminal convictions can also have serious negative impacts, especially on low-income communities and communities of color, much like other aspects of the criminal justice system.

In general, community service sentences are issued as an alternative to jail time for people who cannot pay court fines or fees. However, the study argues that the results of community service sentences are often similar to those of hefty, unaffordable fees. People who cannot afford to pay fines often cannot afford to spend weeks working full-time for no pay. In addition, the study questioned the connection between hours of community service and fines. It argued that people sentenced to community service are forced to work far more hours should be necessary to recoup the fine. Researchers noted that in at least one-quarter of the studied 5,000 cases, people were ordered to work at least 155 hours without pay.

The researchers also raised broader questions about the impact of widespread community service labor on society as a whole. They said that people were sentenced to 8 million hours of community service between 2013 and 2014, the equivalent of 4,900 full-time employees who could be paid for this labor.

Inequities in the criminal justice system have sparked calls for reform, but many people do not realize that alternative sentencing can also pose problems. People facing criminal charges may consult with a criminal defense attorney about their options to protect their rights and freedom.