For anyone concerned about racism in the criminal justice system, this is a must read and a truly original contribution to the conversation. Drawing on thousands of hours of actual observations in the Cook County criminal court system (Chicago), Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve exposes the various forms of racism that exist within the culture. The scene is set by a sad and shocking context: a huge courthouse, built next to a huge jail, built in a poor area where mostly people of color live. The people getting charged and the families of defendants are overwhelming people of color, mostly from that area. Next, you have an almost all white cast of judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and defense attorneys—all commuting to work from a different area. Even the professionals find this very peculiar and odd, although they become desensitized to it eventually.
Cook County is a highly efficient cattle call of defendants taking a “plea” (pleading guilty for a reduced sentence) and going to jail. After finishing the book, the words “due process” and “justice” and “adequate representation” are non-existent. Most shocking is the more overt, “old school” racism. For example, a prosecutor will openly mock a defendant by talking in Ebonics. Or the term “mope” is the official term for most defendants in the system: lazy, criminal, undeserving defendants that suck up taxpayers money, a term which closely resembles another racially charged word that we don’t say anymore. Or the way people of color are segregated from the court proceedings, kept in a bullet proof room in the back of the court. These are defendants families, victims’ families, court watchers—again almost all Black or Brown. Frequently, they are dealt with in a rude, humiliating, or even aggressive way by judges or sheriffs.
Although the writing is a bit bad, repetitive, and academic (and I almost put the book down for that reason), I am enriched by the content and original research that went into it. The entire history of racism is brought to bare and applied in specific ways. The author has keen insight into the nuance of how racism becomes cultural and institutional—it’s not just a few “bad apples”. She goes out of her way to get the perspectives of prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys—all who do not, by the way, end of looking very good at the end. In fact, the defense attorneys end of looking surprisingly bad. You feel the sheer exhaustion, outrage, and guilt the author feels as she finishes the book. After all, in order to get the “inside” scoop, she essentially goes undercover as a clerk and takes part in the culture that she is writing against. And for what end? To expose the reality of day to day life in a real court system, something that can only be gleaned by observing it.