Pressing Charges: Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court

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Book Review

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CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, The Murphy Institute




There is a prosecutor in Manhattan Criminal Court who wears a Black Lives Matter button on the job. One day, a group of public defenders, myself included, found him alone in a courtroom where only quality of life offenses are heard, authorizing plea bargains more lenient than the standard recommendations of the New York County District Attorney’s office: reducing fines, reducing community service, even avoiding convictions. The button seemed a puzzling appropriation for a prosecutor. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015, after all, public defenders had worn the same pins in court only to face hostile looks and defensive questioning from court and police officers.

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve would probably roll her eyes at this surprise, arguing that public defenders scarcely have higher moral standing than prosecutors. In her new book Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court, Van Cleve examines the criminal courts in Chicago’s Cook County. She finds that all lawyers working in the criminal courts are complicit in the propagation of America’s caste system. Crook County exposes how the gritty daily rhythms of the criminal process methodically put people through the mill of mass incarceration and reproduce twenty-first-century racism.

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