(In)Justice From the Inside: Tales From a Woman Embedded in America's Largest Court

"It clearly shows that something is going wrong in that system when a grandmother is raising her hands like she might be shot," says author and professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve.
by | September 18, 2017
Chicago police officers line up outside one of their headquarters during a protest for the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. (AP/Paul Beaty)

Chicago's criminal justice system has seen relentless stains on its reputation in the last few years. In 2015, the city released a disturbing video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting, disproving officers’ claims that the teenager had been killed in self-defense. Crime and violence in the city continues to spiral out of control. And this January, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report on the department, describing a culture of excessive force, bad training and cover-ups.

But the police force isn’t the only place plagued by dysfunction. The court system there shares some of the same problems, and one professor embedded herself into it to better understand them.

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a researcher and criminal justice professor at Temple University, spent 10 years gathering information on the Cook County court system, which includes the city of Chicago. She even worked as an intern and a law clerk in a prosecutor’s office for several years. After collecting 1,000 hours of observation, Van Cleve wrote Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court, a searing indictment of the criminal justice system that alleges racism, intimidation and unprofessionalism from prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and police officers.

Unfortunately, Van Cleve says, Cook County is “quite ordinary in its profound dysfunction.”

In the book, Van Cleve focuses on how authority figures treat victims, defendants and their families. She takes that approach because, she says, the public’s perceptions determine whether government institutions can function effectively.

"When the government stops serving the people, or when people feel mistreated by government, it has lasting effects," she says. "How do you get young people to follow direction from police officers? How do you get the public to see them as being helpers rather than someone who is going to harm young men or plant drugs on them?"

Governing spoke with Van Cleve about her research, how customer service ratings inspired it and what she thinks can be done to improve courtroom culture.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book's title, Crook County, is provocative. Where did that come from?

Crook County is not a term that I made up. It came from the communities that are most impacted by the criminal justice system in Chicago. It's their critique of a criminal justice system that has lost its way and that acts in these illegal ways that blur the lines between who the true criminals are. You will often see protesters with signs that say "Crook County Judge," referring to these judges who let police officers off after shooting an unarmed suspect.

For me, there is something valuable about honoring the people most impacted by the system -- whether they're defendants, victims or family members. In some ways, they own the title of my book.

You started working as an intern and law clerk in Cook County for the prosecutor's office. Can you explain why you were drawn to that? Was it always about research?

I was part of an internship program that allowed Northwestern University students to both gather social science data and get work experience. I chose the prosecutor's office because at that time I really felt compelled by the mission of a prosecutor. I felt that prosecutors were advocating for victims, and that's kind of the side I wanted to be on.

But once I saw who was being held accountable in the courts, I saw that these people weren't there for violent crimes. Half of the cases were nonviolent felony infractions and oftentimes possession of drugs the size of a sugar packet.

Can you describe your methodology? How did you think about collecting data and assessing the effectiveness of this system?

One of the things that I thought about is, if I'm a lone researcher studying this court system, what do I need to do to compel the chief judge or the chief prosecutor to really believe the findings? And so I thought about this idea of appraising public institutions based on the consumers they serve. I thought of this from working in the private sector. If you work for a profit-based company, you often evaluate customer service ratings. We often don't think about that in terms of our public institutions. How are these institutions serving the people? That is in some ways the highest bar for the court system. There is no other institution that can take away your freedom and serve justice, right?

So that became the principle and the inspiration behind sending 130 anonymous court watchers to all 25 courts in Chicago. They collected an additional thousand hours of data looking at how justice was served in terms of individuals. How were victims, families, witnesses and defendants treated in those courtrooms?

Why are the attitudes people have about their criminal justice system important to the way these systems function? Why should the government be interested in considering public perception of systems like this?

For our public systems -- be it the mayor's offices, be it courtrooms, even the DMV -- any time you walk in and the government's insignia is over that institution it's important that there is a sense of legitimacy in it. That, to me, underpins everything.

If you have a lack of legitimacy in policing, for example, that fuels the types of violence we see on the street because people can't trust that the police will stand in and protect them rather than harm them. And when that happens, people turn to gangs to save them.

What did you find in Cook County that you think is contributing to this lack of legitimacy in the eyes of residents?

One of the first things that researchers saw when they went into the courts was just a lack of regard for human life. When you walked into the courthouse, you literally saw almost a shantytown of people waiting in lines that snaked out the door while professionals were pulled alongside through a special kind of "VIP entrance," if you will.

It was everything from malfunctioning bathrooms for defendants and their families, to lack of food, to sheriff's officers who were so intimidating that grandmothers literally would walk toward the gallery to ask basic questions with their hands up. How do we balance creating order with maintaining people's dignity, you know?

And then there were also lots of abuses of power. Everything from a judge appearing to fall asleep during a trial to a sheriff wrapping an extension cord around a defendant's chair because he had the audacity to ask for a jury trial. These types of antics became part of the everyday practice of justice.

The final thing was the level of basically overt racism. Judges and prosecutors and sheriffs were often using racial tropes or mocking defendants and their families using kind of African-American English. They had these coded racial slurs. They often called defendants the word "mope," which had all the stigmatizing bad meanings that one would associate with a racial slur.

What advice do you have for government institutions that want to watch out for any potentially inappropriate or abusive behavior in the criminal justice system?

It's important to think about, what can good prosecutors or good judges or good government employees do in the face of such abuse of power? Being a whistleblower is often an extremely scary thing.

In the book, for example, one prosecutor came forward and said that he had a case where a suspect was shot and that the police officer's stories weren't making sense. He kept trying to go up the chain of command to ask for help, and at every step of the way, all the way up to the chief prosecutor, he was ignored. At one point, they throw an ashtray at him. So you have someone trying to do the right thing, but the court culture made it so that individuals could not stand up for what was right.

I think that's the greatest challenge: How do you empower people who want to do the right thing to be able to do it and actually try to make a change within an institution?