Criminologist Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve knows that most members of the public do not expect racism to be embedded in the courts. But her new book Crook County may test the faith of Americans who believe in the fairness of our criminal justice system.
The first time Van Cleve entered Chicago's Cook County criminal court, she was struck by the glaring racial divide in the supposedly colorblind justice system. As a 19-year-old Northwestern University student, she observed that the defendants were overwhelmingly African-American and Latino, while the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys were nearly all white.
On the wall in one prosecutor's office was a collection of nameless mug shots of defendants, all of them African-American and Latino. Gesturing at this "wall of shame," the prosecutor said to Van Cleve, "You see the scum we have to deal with?"
This was the beginning of what became Van Cleve's decade-long field research into the Cook County criminal justice system. She worked as a clerk within the Cook County-Chicago criminal court system for both the prosecutor's office and then for the public defender's office. She trained dozens of court watchers and compiled notes from observations totaling over 1,000 hours. The result of her study is Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court.
Crook County arrives at a moment when cities across the country are facing public scrutiny over the killing of minorities after encounters with the police. In Chicago, the shooting death of teenager Laquan McDonald led to the firing of the city's police chief and an ongoing investigation; last Thursday, Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez stepped aside, clearing the way for a special prosecutor to take over the McDonald case.
But she never set out to be a whistleblower. After working in the White House and for an ad agency, she decided to obtain a PhD and study the criminal court system in her hometown of Chicago.
"I really felt a calling to go back and give back to thinking about the criminal justice system," she told NBC News. "I felt like I could do all this research, I had all these skills, but I really wanted it to be put to some greater purpose for social justice."
Van Cleve said that when she wrote the book, "I wrote in fear. I researched it in fear… and it was mostly because as one of the only people of color in this court system, in this setting where mostly the prosecutors and judges were white and all the defendants were people of color, the idea that I could collect data on how people were being racially abused and then actually go and tell that publically was quite intimidating," she said. "So I think it was a journey for me to reflect on what I was willing to put forth. And I hope that those stories come forth in the book."
Yet in "Crook County," Van Cleve documents how minority defendants in Chicago were referred to as "Mopes," a term with the same derogatory intent as the N-word. Fabricated police reports were overlooked.
Rather than a case of rogue officers and "a few bad apples," Van Cleve presents a searing picture of systemic and deeply entrenched racism - including among defense attorneys. Those within the system who try to fight its defects often risk retaliation and isolation.
Minority defendants, she writes, were often viewed as objects with no humanity. Van Cleve shows how even members of the public, such as defendants' family members, were routinely disrespected and subjected to humiliation and abuse.
Van Cleve told NBC News that the title of her book was not a play on words or a clever pun. "The term Crook County came from the folks that live around the courthouse, the mostly African-American and Latino communities that have gone into this court system and into this jail system. They say they are going to Crook County," she said.
"It is a mockery of sorts," said Van Cleve. "It doesn't really speak to corruption. What it speaks to is the fact that the folks that are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system in Chicago see the prosecutors and judges as just as criminal or even more criminal than the community they live in. And so when you have these blurred lines between who's holding folks accountable in this system and you can't tell if they are law-abiding or in some ways criminal — that's a system that lacks legitimacy."
Van Cleve is an Assistant Professor at Temple University in the Department of Criminal Justice. She is the recipient of the 2014-2015 Ford Foundation Fellowship Postdoctoral Award, the 2015 New Scholar Award (co-winner), and an affiliated scholar with the American Bar Foundation. She has written for the New York Times and NBC News Latino, and appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show and CNN.
Looking ahead, Van Cleve believes that African-Americans and Latinos need to learn their rights in our court system, particularly those that deal with what she calls the "everyday injustices" - such as a lack of effective legal representation or being mistreated in the courtroom.
"The legal community and advocacy groups need to shift their attention to empowering communities to advocate for themselves. When public defenders won't talk to your family members, what can you do to hold them accountable? How can you complain, how can you protest? How can you hold that lawyer accountable?" Van Cleve asked. "Those are all important interventions and next steps (to take) so that we can regain faith - and so that communities of color can feel empowered."