The Chicago Syndicate: Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court

Monday, June 24, 2019

Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve’s "Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court" offers new insight into the processes of everyday “colorblind racism” within one of the largest court systems in the United States. This well-written and engaging book offers a remarkably relevant and important analysis of the U.S. criminal justice system by focusing on attorneys, judges, and the courtrooms in which they practice and adjudicate the law. While more attention has been focused on race and policing, criminal courts are a central actor in perpetuating the racialized outcomes evident in U.S. jails and prisons. Gonzalez Van Cleve documents and analyzes how powerful, disproportionately white male decisionmakers create and shape an extraordinarily corrupt and systemically racist system.

Crook County is based on over 1,000 hours of ethnographic observations of court proceedings, as well as interviews with judges and lawyers, giving the reader a truly original and path-breaking sense of how racism is embedded in the “inside” of the criminal justice system. The findings reveal a frankly heartbreaking account of a complicated habitus where race and class are continually reinforced in the negative assumptions about the poor and people of color that lawyers and judges make, and how the treatment of these accused individuals affirms “racialized rules” and color-blind racism.

What sets Gonzalez Van Cleve’s work apart from numerous accounts of racial inequality in arrests, sentencing, and treatment of the poor and people of color is her analysis of the everyday workings of the criminal justice system. Her research reveals everyday racial microaggressions articulated and practiced by lawyers and judges before a judgement is even rendered through racialized rules and scripts that routinely disorient and subjugate low-income people of color. Throughout the book, Gonzalez Van Cleve cracks open the door not only of courtrooms, but also of judge’s chambers and attorney’s offices, to show how prosecutors, judges, and public defendants regularly engage in racist practices that abuse both defendants and their families.

Beginning with her entrance into the Gang Crimes Unit where the white state attorneys bore such names as “Beast-Man Miller,” the author entered a world that denies the humanity of African American and Latinos through racialized cultural practices that demean the defendants and facilitate wrongful convictions. The ethnography provides numerous examples of how this system operates, such as when an elderly African American woman, leaning on her oxygen tank for support appeared before the judge to plead for her life saying she did not mean to kill her husband who had abused her for years. She was berated by the judge for being a “bad person” with little reference to the crime for which she was charged. Using Garfinkel’s work as a point of departure alongside of research on colorblind racism, Gonzalez Van Cleve argues this is but one example of racial degradation ceremonies pervasive in the courtroom that focus on judgments of immorality directed at defendants of color and the poor.

Such stories are analyzed in dialogue with relevant research but with a level of detail that is rarely found in other work on the topic and reflects the countless hours of ethnographic observation and interviews she and her research assistants undertook. Throughout this book, Gonzalez Van Cleve gives additional breadth and depth to Malcolm Feeley's notion that the “process is the punishment.” This book is impressive for the rigor of the data collection and analysis, poignancy of the narratives, and beautifully written observations that deepen our understanding of the ways in which racialized punishment operates in our legal system.


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