Minimum Protection, Maximum Vulnerability: Labor Standards in Court-Ordered Community Service

This is part a four-part series that uncovers coerced labor in the U.S. and suggests pathways toward decarceration and worker power, emphasizing initial findings on labor protections in community service programs across states, with a focus on anti-Black criminalization and the undermining of labor standards.

Building off previous work with UCLA Labor Center and A New Way of Life Reentry Project, part 1 in this series includes preliminary findings from a national survey of state statutes authorizing court-ordered community service work programs. This is the first installment in an ongoing project looking at exclusions from basic worker protections in court-ordered work programs — to little surprise, we found the great majority of states provide:

  1. No guarantee that work hours are credited against jail time or court-ordered debt at rates at or above minimum wage,
  2. No mechanisms regulating workplace safety or compensation for injury,
  3. No protections against discrimination in treatment, assignment, or placement,
  4. No protections against displacement of regularly employed workers, and more.

We view this as another example of the criminal legal system operating as low-road labor supply, pushing people to accept lower standards in jobs, often at the threat of incarceration. We know the criminal legal system plays a larger role in undermining workers’ movements and worker power than we often recognize, and we’d like to right-size that view.

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