Gangs on Trial: From the Corner to the Court

This week in North Philly Notes, John Hagedorn, author of Gangs on Trial, writes about why and how gang members are stereotyped and demonized in the courtroom.

I have spent more time in courtrooms the last few decades than I have on street corners or playgrounds. Over the same period, I have written many more court reports as an expert witness than I have journal articles as an academic. Why? Turning my attention to “gangs in court” was a conscious choice based on some fundamental beliefs I have on the uses of research and on my determination to challenge injustice.

First, the question raised by sociologist Alfred McClung Lee, “Sociology for whom?” has long streamed through my head on a continuous loop. Lee’s 1976 presidential address to the American Sociological Association attacked careerism in sociology. My mentor, Joan Moore, as well as my role model, Kenneth Clark, both argued that research should consciously benefit the community or it would be used by elites for their own interests. Clark’s haunting question, “What is the value of a soulless truth?” became my credo, accompanying my slogan, “Research not stereotypes.” From my first study on gangs in Milwaukee, I was conscious of the implications of my research. In the 1980s I told my People & Folks respondents—the “top dogs” of gangs in Milwaukee—that the purpose of my research was to provide evidence that “jobs not jails” was a better solution to Milwaukee’s gang problem.     

In other words, I believe research needs to be understood outside of “truth for its own sake,” and deliberately designed to benefit those in powerless communities, especially those who are stigmatized and demonized. If social scientists will not defend the powerless, what values do we have? Did we understand sociologist C. Wright Mills when he called on social scientists to challenge the rationalization of society?  

Second, I realized frustration/aggression theories of violence are not only applicable to the streets. Just go to any trial of a gang member and listen to the angry tone of the prosecutor saying the community is “fed up” with gang violence and wants… well, prosecutors often say “justice” when they mean “revenge.”

Social psychologist Craig Haney teaches us that sentencing is not based so much on the criminal acts of flawed human beings, but on the belief the accused has an evil character—“unstoppable evil” was what one of my defendants was called. Evidence of the criminal act is secondary to what prosecutors believe is the less than human nature of the accused. Demonization was taken literally in one of my first cases, when the defendants were labeled “Followers of Our Lord King Satan”, a law enforcement make-believe acronym for Georgia’s FOLKS gang.

Violence is hard, sociologist Randall Collins concluded, and in order to justify it and overcome our deeply embedded inhibitions. Philosopher David Livingston Smith argues the victim needs first to be dehumanized. On the streets rival gang members are called “Slobs” or “Crabs” or some other non-human appellation. You are killing an “it” not a “he” or “she.” I found that is precisely how it works in the courtroom, with a predictable racist tinge. Gang members, typically Black or Hispanic, are dehumanized—another of my defendants was called a “mad dog.” What do you do with a mad dog? If you can’t kill it, you lock it up and throw away the key. What better description is there of today’s sentencing policy? 

I began my expert witness work in 1996 opposing a possible death penalty for Keith Harbin, who was then on trial. At that time, there were few academics willing to consult with the defense, and hesitant to risk the ire of law enforcement. There clearly was an unmet need. From the start, I saw my expert witness work as an extension of my social responsibility to confront racism and dehumanizing policies and practices. 

So, it is as simple as that. My “life in court”—and this book—are the results of my particular circumstances, the general punitive nature of today’s mass incarceration society, and my belief in the social responsibility of research.

Watch a video of John Hagedorn talking about his book here.

Quality of Life and Courts

This week in North Philly Notes, Christine Zozula, author of Courting the Community, reflects on how low-level crimes have big implications for local communities.

In late July of this year, Los Angeles City Council voted to reinstate a city ordinance that made sleeping in vehicles on residential streets, or within a block of schools, parks and daycares a punishable offense. As reported by the LA Times and LA Podcast, politicians supported the ordinance by claiming it would allow police officers to link unhoused people to social services through the Homeless Engagement and Response Team. Some LA community members in favor of the ordinance claimed that the ordinance would free up parking for residents with homes and make streets safer and more sanitary. Critics of the ordinance claimed that this policy criminalizes homelessness and makes unhoused people less safe and less likely to be able to transition to housing. The issues raised in response to this ordinance, quality-of-life and debates about punishment and treatment, are all too familiar to me.

Courting the Community_smI spent about a year studying a community court—  I sat in the courtroom to observe daily case processing, talked to the people who worked there, and attended meetings court officials had with residents and various community groups. The first community court opened in New York City in 1993, since then, 37 more have appeared in cities including Minneapolis and Seattle, as well as in countries like Australia and Israel. The overarching thesis of community courts is that quality-of-life crimes victimize the community by creating disorderly conditions that lead to more crime. Whereas traditional courts often dismiss these charges or administer a small fine, community courts aim to “meaningfully punish” quality-of-life offenses. A teenager who vandalized a building might be ordered to paint over his graffiti. Someone who was publicly drunk may have to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and report back to the court. Community courts have a variety of sanctions at their disposal, and punishment might involve “paying back the community,” solving the “root causes” of offending, and jailtime for defendants who do not comply with court orders. They also frequently involve (non-offending) community-members in the justice process.

My experience observing what happened in court oscillated between watching Judge Judy and waiting at the DMV. I watched judges praise defendants who got clean, shaking their hands as the prosecutor ordered their initial crime to be removed from their record. When defendants failed to complete court orders, judges acted as a detached administer or a scolding parent, as he or she sentenced defendants to jail. Community courts embrace both rehabilitative and punitive ideas of punishment, which allow them to be simultaneously therapeutic and tough-on-crime. This seemingly conflictual logic is perhaps best put by one of my respondents, who said, “Some people want and need help, and others want to serve a life sentence 3 months at a time.”

Early in my fieldwork I was puzzled by how seamlessly the community court embraced contradictory goals of punishment and treatment. Over time, I came to understand that the flexibility of the community court model was integral to its success. Courting the Community explores how community courts act as flexible organizations in a deft way to create and maintain legitimacy. Community courts seductively promise residents and business owners safer neighborhoods and cleaner streets. They shower social service providers with additional judicial resources to aid in compliance. They pledge to traditional courts that they will ease burdensome case loads, freeing up more time for serious and violent crimes. My book explores how a community court strategically markets itself to various stakeholders by systematically deploying whatever narrative of effectiveness best fits the audience at hand.

Courting the Community focuses on just one court, but it contains larger lessons that extend far beyond the court’s walls. It raises important questions about what it means to construct “community” through the criminal justice system. It shows how community courts are involved in what I call the criminalization of incivility, which makes things like sleeping in public spaces or playing loud music late at night subject to criminal justice intervention. Courting the Community also guides readers to analyze how criminal justice reform movements make claims about their work and how those claims might obfuscate more empirically rigorous measurements of effectiveness.  

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