Examining the criminal justice system using qualitative methods

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve’s book, Crook County: Racism and injustice in America’s largest criminal court, examines the work of the justice system as carried out in the largest criminal court in the US, Chicago-Cook County. In five devastating chapters, the author provides story after story as evidence supporting the key idea in the book: the justice system in the United States is not “blind,” but discriminates routinely against black and brown people on a daily basis.

I first read about van Cleve’s (2016) book in Steven Lubet’s (2018) book Interrogating ethnography: Why evidence matters. This book was one of the over 50 ethnographies that Lubet read in order to examine ethnographers’ use of “evidence.” Lubet asked questions to do with how ethnographers dealt with rumors and hearsay, how they fact-check sources, whether they examine contrary evidence, what they do with accounts from “undependable witnesses”, what kinds of claims are made from evidence presented, and how the criminal law might be considered with respect to their studies (2018, p. xiv). (The last question here pertains to studies in which researchers encountered illegal activities during their studies).

Now an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Brown University, van Cleve began the study in 1997 when she started taking field notes of the courtrooms she observed for an ethnographic study of culture (2016, p. 6). Later, when in graduate school, she clerked for both the prosecutor’s and public defender’s office in the Cook County Court. Data upon which the book’s findings are based include 104 interviews with judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, and 1,0000 hours of observations of courtroom proceedings conducted by a group of 130 “court watchers” whom she had trained (p. xv) in partnership with the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice – a social advocacy nonprofit (p. 9).

The book aims at interrogating the viewpoints of court professionals – both prosecutors and public defenders. Van Cleve asks “how they see defendants, victims, families, and other consumers of justice” (p. xv). Specifically, questions include:

  • How are courtroom workgroups and local legal culture affected by the racial divides that separate white professionals from minority defendants?
  • What role do racial categories play in streamlining processes and maintaining efficiency?
  • How do criminal courts reproduce racial politics – a particular social order divided along racial lines?
  • How does the arrangement reproduce itself through bureaucratic practices that are defended as “colorblind” to the mostly white professionals governing it? (p. 10).

In the chapters that follow, Van Cleve portrays a vivid picture of how the justice system is separate and unequal (Chapter 1), how racial degradation practices take place in courtrooms, although these are not visible in the court record (Chapter 2), how defense attorneys and prosecutors deal with race in their everyday practices (Chapters 3 and 4), and how defense attorneys manage their caseloads through estimations of defendants’ moral “worthiness”.

In the final chapter to the book, Van Cleve asserts that “justice in the courts is punishment, racial punishment” (p. 185), that produces high costs, including wrongful convictions together with damage to communities affected by mass incarceration of black and brown people (pp. 185-186).  Van Cleve asserts that “racial degradation ceremonies become a type of political theater on the state’s behalf, whether dramatized in a major urban courthouse or in the street by police officers” (p. 188). What might readers do in response to the findings of this study? The author offers a clear call to action to readers:

Go. Go to the courts. Bear witness to what attorneys and judges do and bear witness en masse. Don’t let them show you trials, sensationalized murder cases, or heroic acts of litigation. Go as an everyday person, wearing jeans, hoodies, and the like, and take some field notes and court-watching forms while you’re at it (van Cleve, 2016, p. 189).

Protocols for both the interviews and the courtroom observations are found in an extensive methodological appendix. Van Cleve calls on professors and teachers to take their students to courtrooms also – in order to “replicate my data until you change the findings in Cook County-Chicago and perhaps in other jurisdictions” (Van Cleve, 2016, p. 189).

This book, Crook County: Racism and injustice in America’s largest criminal court, is well worth reading for its informative detail concerning how racial discrimination is enacted in courtroom settings. Although the book’s primary readers are sociologists and those working in criminal justice, the book is accessible to a far wider audience. The book is well-suited to coursework to do with ethnographic research methods and is likely to spur lengthy discussions concerning how qualitative researchers might conduct research in the pursuit of social justice.


Lubet, S. (2018). Interrogating ethnography: Why evidence matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Cleve, N. G. (2016). Crook County: Racism and injustice in America’s largest criminal court. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


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