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What Are Community Service, Community Labor and Cal-Trans?

In the context of resolving many cases, the plea bargain may involve community service, community labor or Cal-Trans as an alternative to serving time in jail or even prison.  It is unusual for a plea bargain to obligate a client to perform more than one of these activities, which are usually quantified in hours or days.
About This Article Briefly: Community service is not the same thing as community labor or Cal-Trans.  If one is contemplating a plea bargain being offered, it is prudent to understand the distinction between each of these labor-related probation conditions.
Community service, is as the title suggests, a form of doing something that helps the community in some way.  The most common form is trash clean up, although there are many forms.  Graffiti removal, gardening (raking leaves, i.e.) or assisting a local non-profit, charity organization are common.  Our office has had clients fulfill their community service obligations at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Lions, Elks and Moose lodges with inventory, waitress duties and even bartending. 

The decision of where one completes community service is usually made by a community service center, not the client.  If a court directs someone to report to a community service office or Volunteer Center, the client must go there first and then be assigned to some form of service that fits with their physical abilities and their conviction.  For example, a seventy year old man who has difficulty standing for a long time would not be assigned to gardening duties.  Likewise, someone convicted of embezzlement would not be assigned to serve food and accept payment at an Elk’s Club.

art 436 - compton courthouseCompton Courthouse

There is usually a small administrative fee associated with community service that the community service center or volunteer center charges to cover their overhead.  In Torrance, the fee is $40 for 1 to 50 hours of community service, $70 if 301 hours or more are involved and various proportional fees in between.

When one must perform community service and lives outside Los Angeles County, our office suggest that individual do one of two things.  First, the client can report to a local courthouse and find a list of approved community service providers and then contact them to volunteer for work.  This can be problematic, however, as the organization often does not understand what our client requests, but it has also worked well over the years.

The second method involves our client reporting to a local Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Heal the Bay or Red Cross or other recognized, authorized non-profit organization such as a food bank, homeless shelter or well-recognized church.  Our client then must request to perform the community service there, perhaps explaining that it is from a court ordered term of probation.  The most important part is then obtaining documentation of completing the service later, preferably on letterhead that shows the organization’s name and with a description of the number of hours (or days) volunteered and the nature of the work.

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Cal-Trans is roadside trash pick up, but is may include helping with irrigation projects, too.  It is physical labor, exposing one to elements of weather and forcing our client to mingle with other folks with similar obligations from the court.  It is meant to be miserable.  It is not supposed to be easy.
To sign up for Cal-Trans, one usually must contact a community service center or volunteer center, who will then provide phone numbers of various centers where one can then report early in the morning before being assigned to a certain stretch of highway.  Cal-Trans usually lasts a full eight hours per day and is now available seven days per week.

Community labor is the most miserable form of physical labor.  It can be shockingly unpleasant.  It can involve cleaning up homeless encampments, requiring the client to wear special protective clothing to clean up human feces, urine-soaked clothing, drug paraphernalia, pornography, trash and rain-soaked cardboard boxes.  It can involve wearing thick rubber gloves to pick up used syringes and used condoms under freeway overpasses.  It is the most miserable of ways to avoid county jail.

For more information about the issues in this case, click on the following articles:
  1. What is Summary Probation?
  2. What Is Diversion, Delayed Entry of Plea and Deferred Entry of Judgment?
  3. What is Formal Probation?
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