Crook County
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Crook County

Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

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eBook - ePub

Crook County

Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

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About This Book

Winner of the 2017 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva Outstanding Book Award, sponsored by the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

Finalist for the C. Wright Mills Book Award, sponsored by the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

Winner of the 2017 Oliver Cromwell Cox Book Award, sponsored by the American Sociological Association's Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities.

Winner of the 2017 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book, sponsored by the American Sociological Association's Sociology of Culture Section.

Honorable Mention in the 2017 Book Award from the American Sociological Association's Section on Race, Class, and Gender.

NAACP Image Award Nominee for an Outstanding Literary Work from a debut author.

Winner of the 2017 Prose Award for Excellence in Social Sciences and the 2017 Prose Category Award for Law and Legal Studies, sponsored by the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, Association of American Publishers.

Silver Medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (Current Events/Social Issues category).

Americans are slowly waking up to the dire effects of racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities of color. The criminal courts are the crucial gateway between police action on the street and the processing of primarily black and Latino defendants into jails and prisons. And yet the courts, often portrayed as sacred, impartial institutions, have remained shrouded in secrecy, with the majority of Americans kept in the dark about how they function internally. Crook County bursts open the courthouse doors and enters the hallways, courtrooms, judges' chambers, and attorneys' offices to reveal a world of punishment determined by race, not offense.

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve spent ten years working in and investigating the largest criminal courthouse in the country, Chicago–Cook County, and based on over 1, 000 hours of observation, she takes readers inside our so-called halls of justice to witness the types of everyday racial abuses that fester within the courts, often in plain sight. We watch white courtroom professionals classify and deliberate on the fates of mostly black and Latino defendants while racial abuse and due process violations are encouraged and even seen as justified. Judges fall asleep on the bench. Prosecutors hang out like frat boys in the judges' chambers while the fates of defendants hang in the balance. Public defenders make choices about which defendants they will try to "save" and which they will sacrifice. Sheriff's officers cruelly mock and abuse defendants' family members.

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Crook County 's powerful and at times devastating narratives reveal startling truths about a legal culture steeped in racial abuse. Defendants find themselves thrust into a pernicious legal world where courtroom actors live and breathe racism while simultaneously committing themselves to a colorblind ideal. Gonzalez Van Cleve urges all citizens to take a closer look at the way we do justice in America and to hold our arbiters of justice accountable to the highest standards of equality.

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Criminal Law
TO DRIVE TO THE NATION’S BIGGEST and busiest courthouse, take I-55 South from the “Loop”—the center of the city—as though you are making your way to Midway Airport. Drive toward poverty; until the neighborhoods get more racially homogeneous, more black and brown; until the regal Chicago skyline is small but visible in your rearview mirror. Exit at California Avenue, just a few exits shy of Cicero, and start navigating by artifacts of concentrated poverty: look for trash, broken glass, discarded hubcaps on the side of the road, worn gym shoes thrown over electrical wires, and bars on the windows of homes. Look for storefront churches advertising salvation and redemption for a modest fee adjacent to liquor stores offering another type of escapism. Look for graffiti on brick walls of buildings; spray-painted murals memorializing the honorable deaths of young men, women, and children who died in local violence—sacred shrines depicted upon the profane markers of deterioration and disadvantage.
The criminal courthouse is situated in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood with concentrations of violence, gangs, and drugs. Storefront lawyers’ offices are among the few businesses in sight. With bars on the windows of their offices, even the few local lawyers who set up shop here seem imprisoned. Mothers push babies in worn umbrella strollers, and the elderly cart groceries home against a backdrop of cement walls, spiked barbed wire, and chain-link fences that surround the adjacent jail. Daily life goes by these fixtures of incarceration.
On my first day driving to the courthouse on 26th and California Avenue (Leighton Criminal Court Building), the Chicago weather served a brutal bite. It was ice-raining horizontally so that the rain transformed into painful BB pellets that relentlessly and percussively pounded on the windshield of the car. The ice-rain crystallized a perimeter of separate and unequal arrangements that may have been ignored if the sun had been shining or if my first visit had been on a warm spring day.
Beyond the white structure of the Greco-Roman courthouse was what looked like a Depression-era breadline. Umbrellas were tilted and angled, making the breadline appear like a shantytown fortress in defense of the weather. Those without umbrellas huddled under newspapers and jackets, extended in contorted directions like a modern sculpture, to protect themselves from the wind and ice. It was the 8:30 a.m. courthouse “rush hour” and the breadline was the security queue for the general public—a line that included defendants, families, witnesses, and children. This group, which stretched far outside the building, was almost entirely comprised of people of color.
Adjacent to this line was a separate entrance for attorneys and personnel who had identification badges. While the general public was left to withstand the elements, the flow of professional traffic moved swiftly through, flashing credentials with sheriff’s officers nodding and helping to expedite and to avoid inconvenience. The personnel and professionals in this group tended to be white.
Such adjacencies of a black and brown breadline braving the elements and a VIP lane for white professionals instantly demarcated a Jim Crow–style social arrangement on the outside perimeter of the courthouse. This visual of a black and brown entrance and a separate entrance for whites was my first clue of a double system of justice—one for people of color and the poor, and one for wealthy whites.
The Chicago cold heightened the visibility of racial inequality and made such waiting not just inconvenient or racially segregated but particularly cruel, and perhaps unusual in a modern era where we are culturally trained to ignore racial difference. Silently, I watched from a warm, leather-seated sedan, driven by my supervising prosecutor. The windshield wipers acted like a metronome, keeping time of the oppressive duration of the public’s wait.
In these early days of visiting the courts, my supervising attorney drove me to the courthouse in that leather-seated sedan from one of the wealthiest North Shore suburbs in Chicago. She said it was for my own safety. On the surface, such a gesture was kind, but it also encapsulated the prevailing stigma held by professionals about where they do justice and whom they do it for: in their view, their commuting to “26th and Cal” was a journey into the trenches of justice where they dealt with the underbelly of society.
Introducing the All-White Cast
A small population of mostly white attorneys must commute to this space and manage a system foreign to their personal lives and communities. Cases in Cook County are handled by an “all-white cast.”1 Eighty-four percent of state’s attorneys (SAs), 69 percent of public defenders (PDs), and 74 percent of trial court judges are white.2 This is in stark contrast to the cases and people they process. In 2004, 86.2 percent of felony defendants were male, 69 percent were African American, 17 percent were white, and 11.2 percent were Latino.3 The Public Defender’s Office represents about 23,000 indigent defendants each year. These individuals are determined by a judge to be too poor to secure private counsel.4
Such an imbalance quickly presents in visual terms as racial segregation in and around the courthouse. Even outside the building, I observed that segregation was not just spatially arranged but extended to separate and unequal rules and practices between white professionals and the people of color who defined the consumers of criminal justice. On the east side of California Avenue (facing the courthouse) is a five-story parking garage known for the aroma of urine and for being the only free parking in the area. This lot is restricted for jurors, lawyers, cops, and courthouse employees. An older sheriff sits at the gate. On some days, the security gate is propped up and you can find the sheriff napping. Like the courthouse entrance, white drivers with flashy cars are assumed to be lawyers and rarely get stopped—except if the driver chooses to stop. Usually, those who stop are “outsiders” or jurors who believe the posted sign that states that a courthouse badge is necessary for entry.
Courthouse insiders will tell you a separate set of rules. If you drive with authority and give a wave to the sheriff, you should have no trouble passing through to the garage—regardless of what the sign says. Such advice travels through social networks of mostly white attorneys, interns, and students. This tip speaks nothing of race, but the unspoken privilege is delineated along a racial divide. The professionals who give out the tip tend to be educated and white. The jurors and outsiders who stop, then pass through the gate with little scrutiny, are also white.
The outsiders who may or may not be aware of these unspoken rules tend to be black, Latino, and poor. Where does that leave them in this urban landscape in and around the courthouse? Unlike the white professionals, blacks and Latinos arrive at the criminal courthouse on foot, travel by city bus (which may take several transfers), or get dropped off in front of the courthouse by a friend or relative.
For the lucky few who have cars, metered lots play a cruel joke on the unsuspecting. High-priced meters have a maximum time limit that barely allows for the time it takes to stand in the security line and find your courtroom. Because leaving the courtroom to feed the meter may cause a defendant or victim to miss his or her case (thereby, forfeiting bond and causing a defendant, in particular, to go to jail), a parking subculture emerged to cope with this cruel catch-22. Some relatives, neighbors, and friends wait in well-worn cars for friends and strangers alike. The cars have rusted paint and loud mufflers that rattle and bark when the car is turned on to idle for warmth. The occupants periodically feed the meters on behalf of friends and strangers—creating a makeshift parking arrangement for the poor. In contrast to the mild indignity of the parking garage smelling of urine, this parking charade has a circus-like feel, with children playing outside the cars while adults chat and compare notes. What is obvious to outsiders and first-time visitors to 26th and Cal is that this charade is racially defined. These separate and unequal structural divides between white and black are firm boundaries that are rigid, unbending, and policed by white courtroom insiders—especially Cook County sheriff’s officers. Such rigid boundaries extend inside and around the building—delineating black, brown, and poor from educated, privileged, and white. It is an isolated ecosystem that thrives on segregation.
Criminal Courts as a Complex of Punishment
Once you’ve driven to 26th and Cal, an impressive white Greco-Roman courthouse casts an imposing presence upon the surrounding desolation. Vacant lots, railroad tracks, and abandoned industry define what appears to be a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s difficult to comprehend that you’re only six miles from the center of the city, but far from the view and access of most Chicagoans, tourists, and downtown lawyers. This is not the mayor’s Chicago: the pristine version of a metropolis with glorious fountains, museums, and the Magnificent Mile. And it’s not Obama’s Chicago, which extends beyond Hyde Park’s mini-mansions all the way to Grant Park, the site of Obama’s Election Day speech—a place synonymous with an emotionally searing visual of the hope of a post-racial America. No. This part of Chicago is built like Alcatraz Island, a prison of justice encircled not by a moat of water but by impenetrable poverty and violence.
A courthouse should project the business of the courts as dignified. There are eight triumphant sculptures symbolizing law, justice, truth, might, love, wisdom, liberty, and peace that stand guard before this building. First appearances may be deceptive. In addition to these symbols of justice, another structure stands as a foreboding presence. Attached to the courthouse structure by walkways and tunnels that act like the arteries and veins of an organism is the Cook County Jail—linking the structures of due process with the physical adjacency of punishment.
Cook County Jail is notorious; it sprawls across ninety-six acres on Chicago’s southwest side, the equivalent of nearly seventy-two football fields of concentrated punishment and pretrial detainment. This makes the Cook County Jail the largest single-site jail in the nation. At its worst, it houses nearly ten thousand inmates and has been under federal supervision for overcrowding. The vast majority, 67.3 percent, of those admitted to the jail are young African American males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty from Chicago’s South Side and West Side—creating a perversely convenient arrangement whereby the jail is closest to its target population. Another 19 percent of the population comprises Latinos or “other” nonwhite individuals—a further convenience of having a jail and court in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood.5 While the jail systems in Los Angeles and New York have more inmates—14,193 and 12,283, respectively (as of June 30, 2011)—they disperse the inmate population across multiple sites.6 In contrast, the Cook County Jail sits as an imposing cage of pretrial and post-conviction punishment—a behemoth site linked, physically and culturally, to a court system. In the criminal courts of Cook County–Chicago, the lines between due process and punishment become so entangled that they are indistinguishable both to those who “consume” the justice and to those who dole it out, be they prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, or the support staff of clerks and sheriffs.
When Justice Means Punishment
Scholars of law and punishment, including criminologists and sociologists, impose distinct divisions between criminal courts and jails—distinctions that are not shared by the people who find themselves inside these institutions and, in many cases, by the people who work there. When lawyers say they are going to the courthouse, they do not say “the court.” They say that they are going to “26th and Cal” (26th Street and California Avenue). It is spoken about as a general place where one practices criminal law and seamlessly navigates from the jailhouse to the courthouse and back.
On the surface, this blurred boundary between due process and punishment may seem like ignorance on the part of the community. For the lawyers, perhaps, it sounds like nothing more than local lingo. Yet community narratives elaborate the blurred lines between the court and the law and jail and punishment. The local narratives are based on the community’s lived experience, where the lines between due process and punishment do not exist; they also act as a rebuttal to scholars who have artificially manufactured distinctions between institutions for parsimony, symbolism, or the veil of procedural justice.
One can imagine that such a regal white structure of a courthouse linked with a jail the size of seventy-two football fields, placed in the middle of urban desolation and relentless violence, creates a mockery of sorts for the people who live near the criminal justice complex and those who are forced to visit as consumers of justice—be it as a defendant, a victim, a witness, or a supportive family member. Urban sociologists argue that space becomes place through the meanings and collective narratives that people attach. Community nicknames for the court and adjacent jail abound, providing insightful commentary about the complex meanings that the criminal justice complex holds for the consumers of justice or those who live in its shadow.
Crook County and the White Castle
One of the puns associated with Chicago’s criminal justice system is to call it “Crook County”—a term that dismantles the lines of punishment between the court and the jail. Outsiders may think that the “crooks” refer to the pretrial detainees who are charged (and not convicted of their crimes) but too poor to post their bond. However, in this narrative, the “crooks” in the county are actually the professionals—the guards, prosecutors, judges, and even the defense attorneys who are sometimes laughed at as public “pretenders”—the true hustlers who rigged the system.
In the 1970s, Jonathan Casper conducted a series of studies that captured the “consumer” perspective of justice, which appraised the criminal justice system from the vantage point of the system’s consumers. This was an important intervention at a time when the “Due Process Revolution” was extending myriad new rights and protections to the criminally accused.7 He noted that defendants viewed the system as having the same lack of integrity as trying to survive on the streets—a system where the law and the lawless converged in a courthouse where attorneys played the same immoral “games” as a common street hustler.8 These perceptions of illegitimacy live on in these cultural quips about the “crooks of Cook County,” where the boundaries of punishment and due process are not the only things broken down; the boundaries of criminality and civility, the law and the lawless, the moral and the immoral are all blurred as part of the social features of the “Crook County” criminal justice system.
Some of the locals call the court the “White Castle.” This term critiques the speed of delivering justice and the mechanisms for achieving it. White Castle is a fast-food chain that is often a fixture of many impoverished neighborhoods. They serve up slider hamburgers, named not just for their size but also for the urban legend that they make you sick, sliding out the next day. This nickname designated the court as a place of drive-thru justice that is not about truth, wisdom, peace, and other symbolic pillars associated with the statues outside the building but instead connotes an assembly line of plea bargains. Beyond the sheer speed of justice, the quality is more like a Hobbesian vision, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”9
Welcome to the Hotel California
Locals also call the jail the “Hotel California.” On the surface, it is a play on the Eagles’ 1976 hit and a euphemism for a jail located on California Avenue. The lyrics provide a powerful social commentary on the jail and the larger criminal justice system that was reappropriated by the accused and their families. Inmates mock the conditions of “living it up” in one of the most notoriou...

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Citation styles for Crook County
APA 6 Citation
Cleve, N. G. V. (2016). Crook County (1st ed.). Stanford University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Cleve, Nicole Gonzalez Van. (2016) 2016. Crook County. 1st ed. Stanford University Press.
Harvard Citation
Cleve, N. G. V. (2016) Crook County. 1st edn. Stanford University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Cleve, Nicole Gonzalez Van. Crook County. 1st ed. Stanford University Press, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.