Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court. By Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016. 272 pp. $24.00 hardcover.

Date01 March 2017
Published date01 March 2017
Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal
Court. By Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2016. 272 pp. $24.00 hardcover.
Reviewed by Thomas E. Reifer, University of San Diego
Crook County is a powerful sociological exploration of the largest uni-
fied criminal courthouse in the United States—Cook County, Chica-
go—a telling excavation of America’s separate and unequal system
of racialized criminal (in)justice. Based on 10 years of ethnographic
fieldwork, Van Cleve dramatically reveals the role of the courts, and
what she calls their “working groups,” judges, sheriffs, prosecutors,
police, public defenders and private attorneys, in reproducing
racial inequalities, in ways that remind one of Diane Vaughan’s
powerful thoughts on bureaucratic-organizational cultures. Por-
trayed here is a Goffmanesque world in which justice is absent,
racial animus ever present, and bureaucratic rules of efficiency pri-
oritize quantity over quality, all at the expense of defendants, their
families and victims, mostly of color.
Van Cleve opens the courthouses’ doors to show the legal habi-
tus behind Durkheimian rituals of ceremonial racialized degrada-
tion that separate the criminalized poor from the sacred
supposedly law-abiding White citizenry and concomitant White
suburban legal establishment processing them through the system.
Most defendants are charged with lower-level nonviolent offenses,
too poor to obtain adequate legal representation or make bail.
Hence, as in the film, the Lincoln Lawyer, they are guilty until prov-
en innocent. Van Cleve uses her ethnographic gifts to underscore
the culture and code of the courts, where a largely White profes-
sional class, including the substantial majority of Cook County’s
state’s attorneys and judges, process defendants, overwhelmingly
of color, with pictures of successful court cases won put up like
prize fights. The title of the book comes from the nickname given
to the court by persons of color who are the primary persons going
through its halls in the segregated ghetto of Chicago where it
resides, alongside the massive jail complex, dubbed the Hotel Cali-
fornia by residents—“you can check in anytime you like, but you
can never leave”—of which it forms the larger part.
The spatially and racially segregated nature of Chicago is mir-
rored in the complex, with front-stage and backstage performances
of those at the bottom of the legal bar expertly and richly described,
most especially for the persons of color that are the majority
entrants to its hallowed halls of “justice.” In her ethnographic
exploration, Van Cleve illustrates the central role of the White
204 Book Reviews

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