Book Review: Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.

Review of Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court (Stanford, 2017) by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, the 2017 Culture section book award co- winner.

Reviewed by:
Teresa Irene Gonzales, PhD
Univ. of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Crook County, one of the winners of the section’s 2017 Mary Douglas Prize for Best Book, provides a deeply nuanced description and critique of the nation’s largest criminal court. Coupling rich and extensive ethnographic fieldwork, with observations by court watchers, and 104 interviews with public defenders, prosecutors, and judges, Gonzalez Van Cleve (Temple University) uncovers both the implicit and explicit racism and racial structures that frame and inform how the racialized poor are treated within the criminal justice system.


There are three central aspects to Gonzalez Van Cleve’s argument in Crook County: her focus on professionals, her detailing of racial abuses, and her critical analysis of racism and racial injustice as embedded within court culture. Perhaps the most essential is her inverted lens on the court professionals. Rather than focusing on the impacts of an unjust criminal system on the Black and Brown individuals who pass through it, Gonzalez Van Cleve instead highlights the ways these injustices are carried out by the very professionals tasked with upholding and administering fair and just due process. In turning the lens on criminal justice professionals, Gonzalez Van Cleve articulates how systemic racism is managed, perpetuated, practiced, and understood by those “doing” colorblind racism, particularly in how they carry out unchecked racialized court abuses.

Though at times painful and difficult to read, Crook County outlines how racial punishment is embedded within the criminal justice system from the moment one approaches the courthouse. Encompassing 96 acres of land between the predominantly Mexican-American and Mexican-immigrant communities of Pilsen and Little Village in Chicago, the Cook County Courthouse stands as an ominous presence of hopelessness, distrust, and fear to low-income communities of color. Gonzalez Van Cleve delicately visualizes this for her readers through her descriptions of the “breadline” of defendants, victims, family members, and visitors forced to stand in line for upwards of two hours, the stratified parking where mostly white professionals park for free, and the punitive sheriffs who police the lines.

Mistreatment against defendants flows from a moral belief regarding poverty; people are poor due to bad life decisions, laziness, and incompetence, and not due to structural inequities that bars them from living wages or the ability to build wealth over time. As Gonzalez Van Cleve uncovers, this is true for the Black, Latina/o, and White indigent defendants who find themselves in the C(r)ook County Courthouse. This is most evident in Chapter 2, “Of Mopes and Monsters.” Building upon Garfinkel, Gonzalez Van Cleve uses the framework of racial degradation ceremonies to demonstrate how racism operates as a cultural practice within the courts: by dehumanizing, infantilizing, and degrading defendants. “Mope” defendants are viewed as child-like individuals, who don’t subscribe to white, middle-class respectability politics of dress, speech, or comportment. Their crimes are generally minimal and eat up the important time and work of lawyers and judges. In this way, any person, including court professionals, seen as incompetent, lazy, or a time-waster can be labeled a “mope.” Meanwhile, “monsters,” as the name implies, are the real criminals whose cases warrant more time, energy, and expertise from the criminal justice professionals.   

Although it could have easily fallen into a trope of racialized poverty porn, Crook County instead outlines how racism in the courts has evolved into one that is not relegated to a few “bad apples” but rather infiltrates and infects the culture of the place. This is something that Chicagoans are all too familiar with; a fact echoed by the colloquial misnomer used by locals – Crook County – when referring to local politicians and the entire criminal justice system. Everyone from judges, to lawyers, to guards, to police officers, regardless of race, engage in racialized abuses in their everyday work. Yet, during interviews, many denied the existence of racism or viewed their actions as simply part of a larger system. Here is where Gonzalez Van Cleve’s ethnographic detail is key, as it provides a clear, detailed picture of the insidious and expansive nature of the racial abuses.

While it may be easy to simply say this is an issue of white professionals not relating to the mostly Black and Latina/o poor defendants, Gonzalez Van Cleve demonstrates how professionals of color, including herself at times, are also socialized into this culture. It is done primarily as a form of what she calls desensitized “emotional armor” and “street cred,” in order to access and maintain one’s high status with the in-group of professionals. One must distance herself from the labels of “mope,” “monster” or, more damningly, “mope-lover.” At the same time, it is also done to guard against the horrors and injustices of the place. And yet, Crook County also highlights how inequality – via racism and sexism – operates within the in-group. This is a culture that degrades anyone who falls outside of a white, middle-class, patriarchal allegiance, regardless of professional or criminal status.

Written for a broad audience with easy to understand explanations of social theory, Gonzalez Van Cleve’s accessible writing does not detract from the racial injustices meted out by court professionals. In fact, it underscores the severity and frequency of these offenses. This aspect of the book was the most difficult for me. As a native Chicagoan from the Pilsen neighborhood, as someone with family members and friends who have a relationship to the County Courthouse, and as someone who does work in low-income Black and Latina/o communities, I could only read small portions of Crook County at a time before setting the book down in anger. Not because Gonzalez Van Cleve did not capture the essence of the courthouse and the surrounding neighborhood in an accurate manner. Rather, because her descriptions highlighted the deep roots of the system. The author is commended for her rich descriptions and portrayals that offer disturbing, yet normalized impressions of racialized court and legal practices.

Gonzalez Van Cleve sums up the book eloquently, when she states: “This is a story about racism in action, culture in isolation, and the effects that both can have on an institution.”