Cover of Crook County by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve
Crook County
Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court
Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve


272 pages.
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Hardcover ISBN: 9780804790437
Paperback ISBN: 9781503602786
Ebook ISBN: 9780804799201

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Excerpts and More

Winner of the 2019 ASA Distinguished Scholarly Book Award, sponsored by the American Sociological Association (ASA).

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.

About the author

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve is an Assistant Professor at Temple University in the Department of Criminal Justice, with courtesy appointments in the Department of Sociology and the Beasley School of Law. She is a recipient of the 2014-2015 Ford Foundation Fellowship, an affiliated scholar with the American Bar Foundation, and a former Research Director for Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice. She has provided legal commentary on the criminal justice system for MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, NBC News, CNN, and The New York Times.

"Gonzalez Van Cleve's account of the American criminal justice system, based on thousands of hours of careful observation behind the doors of the Chicago–Cook County courthouse, reveals the paradoxes and pain of our modern legal culture, including the effects on the punished and punishers alike. As Van Cleve's investigation so startlingly lays bare, just because legal institutions profess to be colorblind does not make it so. Reading Crook County helps us see the difference."

—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

"Beautifully written and keenly insightful, Crook County is a horror story I couldn't put down. May Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve's masterful book do for the Chicago criminal court what Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did to the meat packing industry: clean it up. Powerful, disturbing and paradigm shifting, Crook County is ethnography at its best."

—Paul Butler, Georgetown Law, author of The Chokehold: Policing Black Men

"Crook County is a searing account of how criminal courts serve as the gateway to racialized punishment. Turning a spotlight on the everyday actions of prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys, Gonzalez Van Cleve reveals a court culture that dehumanizes and discriminates against defendants, victims, and family members. Her eye-opening analysis forces us to confront the possibility [or reality] that mass incarceration results from mass wrongful convictions of black and brown people forced into a devastating charade."

— Dorothy Roberts, University of Pennsylvania, author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

Urgent and important, Crook County is a powerful, eye-opening account of the code of the big-city court system. Carefully dissecting this crucial step of the 'school to prison pipeline,' Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve illustrates just how the scales of justice are cynically stacked against black and brown inner city young people, undermining their faith in our criminal justice system. Crook County is a must-read."

—Elijah Anderson, Yale University, author of Code of the Street and The Cosmopolitan Canopy

"This book is public sociology at its best. It is theoretically grounded, methodologically rigorous and innovativeIn sharp detail, the book shows how the crisis of racism is routinized in the daily functions of formal institutions of justice. There are lessons in this book, then, for any criminologist or sociologist of crime, law or deviance. It transcends geographic boundaries and at once provides seminal insights into future ethnographic research Gonzalez Van Cleve demonstrates the power of ethnography in the best possible sense."

—Benjamin Fleury-Steiner, British Journal of Criminology

"Van Cleve's book is nothing less than a tour de force, and a clarion call for bringing egalitarian principles of racial and social justice to our most overlooked of criminal justice institutions, the courts. It forces us to confront 'the everyday miscarriages of justice' that pervade today's courts, asking us what has become of Gideon's trumpet in the age of spatially and racially concentrated 'mass incarceration.' The book is destined to become a classic, and ought to be on the mandatory reading list for citizens, law and society scholars and all sentient social scientists."

—Thomas E. Reifer, Law and Society Review

"In a groundbreaking new book, Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court, Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve adds an important, novel dimension to this problem. She exposes the deeply flawed operation of the criminal justice system by focusing on how felonies are processed in Cook County, Illinois...Van Cleve's important ethnography brings to light the hidden and pernicious workings of the criminal justice system that often operates in the shadows."

—L. Song Richardson, Yale Law Journal

"Through her meticulous methodological approach that draws on field notes, over one thousand hours of court observations by court watchers, and interviews with judges, private attorneys, public defenders, and prosecutors, Van Cleve outlines a legal habitus allowing individual actors to appear blameless in the practice of racialized justice....Reading Crook County, it becomes clear that the court system is a mere charade of what it is meant to be."––Amy Baumann Grau, Contexts