Crook County Reveals How People of Color Truthfully Experience Justice

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

How far does racism bleed into American society? How deeply imbedded has this cancer taken hold? Criminologist Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve explores this issue in her new book, "Crook County", a decade long journey into the depths of the criminal justice system in Chicago. Van Cleve takes readers beyond the looking glass to a place where the truth is hard to pin down. For over a decade, she was a fly on the wall in courtrooms, judge's chambers and negotiation rooms where lawyers and prosecutors strike deals. Van Cleve, with her fair skin and bouncy locks, had no problem fitting right in. With this cloak, she was privy to the ultimate question, how do white people in power talk about people of color when they don’t think one is in the room? Van Cleve devastatingly illuminates the myriad of racial abuses that fester within the courts. 

Crook County is not a beach read. It is a horror story that will keep you woke and angry. MBG sat down with Van Cleve to discuss the journey she took when writing this devastating narrative. 

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On her personal inspiration to write 'crook county'

"My father’s family grew up in Chicago, close to the prison on 26th & California. My mother’s family is from Harlem and Irving. When I was younger, my great aunt and uncle moved me from the city to the north shore of Chicago. I was able to go to elementary school and beyond in a top rated school system. From there, I received a full ride to Northwestern University. I am a light skinned Latina, so no one ever assumed I was Latina. From this perspective, I was able to be privy to conversations that people would not have had around me if they had known I was a Latina from the inner city. 

When I was in the city, I saw a lot of kids getting into big trouble. Minor offenses such as loitering, underage drinking, these kinds of things got kids from the city into major trouble with the law. When I moved to the north shore, I saw these white suburban kids doing the same things, sometimes even worse, and virtually get away with it.  

A couple of years ago, my little cousin and his friends were drinking open containers by the lakefront. An off-duty police officer started harassing them and put a gun to their heads. These are the stories we don’t hear about. Impoverished people and people of color are having types of interactions with the police and justice system that their white counterparts simply are not."

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I thought being a prosecutor meant defending victims rights. I’ve been told numerous time that to practice law in Cook County, you have to break the law.

Race vs. class

"I often get this question, is it possible these types of abuses are about social class and not just about race? I did a social experiment that took 2 years and 130 research assistants to complete. I sent in white students and students of color into the courtrooms and stripped them of their social class, so they were all equal. Black and Latino students from top universities were seen as defendants and treated almost invisible. On the other hand, the white students were seen as journalists or part of the courtroom. 

This book has exposed a system that has really gone awry. I thought being a prosecutor meant defending victims rights. I've been told numerous times that to practice law in Cook County, you have to break the law. There are times where you may have to plant drugs, etc. because 'they' will most likely break the law in the future anyway."

On exposing the truth

"I wrote this book out of fear. I was very afraid of being a 'whistle blower' and of how people in the justice system would react. I was scared of Anita Alvarez and others in power, were they going to speak out against me? Tarnish my credibility? But, you know what? If not me, then who? Who is going to tell this story? This is how justice is being experienced by people of color and it needs to be exposed. Minority defendants are viewed as objects with no humanity. If you look like Laquan McDonald, then what hope do you have?"

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what does our future hold? 

"It's easy to feel pessimistic, but I feel optimistic because we are in an exciting time right now in Chicago. Journalists are reporting with an increased vigor and passion. They are holding the city of Chicago accountable and suing for the truth. Without them, we would never have known about Laquan McDonald. 'Crook County' is helping to break a story in Chicago. If I had stayed silent, then maybe Anita Alvarez would still be in office. We need to continue this level of outrage and activism. But remember, we have to stay safe. Let's protest and fight safely so we can do so for another day. People of color are always facing adversity, we will always have that level of grit. You will always have that fight in you, it’s just embedded because of the color of your skin. Let's hold on to that and make some changes!"

People of color are always facing adversity, we will always have that level of grit. You will always have that fight in you, it’s just embedded because of the color of your skin.

What are your thoughts on the justice system in Chicago and across the nation? Share with us in the comments below. We'd love to hear from you and spark a discussion. 

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve is an Assistant Professor at Temple University in the Department of Criminal Justice, with courtesy appointments in the Department of Sociology and the Beasley School of Law. She is an affiliated scholar with the American Bar Foundation and has provided legal commentary on the criminal justice system for MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, NBC News, CNN, NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times

Hear more from Van Cleve on NPR's "On Point" where witnessing and prosecuting police shootings is discussed. 

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copy by: gabriela garcia

images courtesy of: adam garcia | Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash