An in-depth study of misdemeanor justice in New York City.
In 1994, the city initiated “Broken Windows” (or quality-of-life) policing, under which low-level offenses—noise complaints, panhandling, public drunkenness, etc.—became important enforcement priorities in an effort to restore a “society of civility” and prevent minor criminals from growing into major criminals. The approach, championed by Police Commissioner William Bratton, has since been widely adopted elsewhere. In this startling scholarly debut, Kohler-Hausmann (Law and Sociology/Yale Univ.) explores what happened to all those arrests when they arrived in the criminal courts. After three years of research and interviews, she finds the hundreds of thousands of individuals who flooded the lower courts—“almost exclusively poor people of color from the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods”—did not face sentences based on guilt or innocence. Rather, their arrests were used as a form of social control. Each defendant underwent a process of sorting, testing, and monitoring, aimed at gathering information to help identify “potential deviants” for later court encounters. Under this managerial rather than adjudicative approach, the courts exerted their power through “the techniques of marking through criminal justice record keeping, the procedural hassle of case processing [long waits, filthy conditions, frequent court appearances, etc.], and mandated performance [drug treatment, community service, etc.] evaluated by court actors.” Based on a dissertation and burdened by the weight of its scholarly apparatus, the book steps gingerly around the troublesome conclusion that “Broken Windows” arrests in New York are being used to keep close tabs on repeat minor offenders and to keep the lid on heavily policed black and Hispanic communities. While overly detailed, it offers vivid examples of the courtroom experiences of illegal peddlers, squeegee cleaners, and other subfelony offenders and raises innumerable questions about “Broken Windows,” how its information-collecting and surveillance aspects live on in the courts, and the ongoing relationship between disadvantaged New Yorkers and the criminal justice system.
An important, first-of-its-kind book.