The racialized governance of the poor in low level misdemeanor courts

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2023-09-10

Authors

Slavinski, Ilya

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Abstract

This dissertation focuses on the misdemeanor court system and how it regulates and manages millions of people. In the misdemeanor court system, courtroom actors deploy a rehabilitative rhetoric that encourages defendants to get on the right track and be better market actors in a process I term “predatory rehabilitation.” Defendant after defendant described the hardships that paying fines and fees caused for themselves and their families. Additionally, defendants cannot get on the right track due to the extraction of time. Cases can take prolonged periods to resolve, often requiring up to ten appearances. Defendants in the study described in great detail the difficulties in having to show up to court, having their cases reset, missing work, getting second jobs to pay for fines, and finding childcare. Predatory rehabilitation is a process that affects people differentially based on race and class. Punishment operates very differently for marginalized communities. For segments of the population that have money, knowledge, and resources, minor violations do little to disrupt their lives by allowing them to pay their fines with no consequences, hire attorneys, and choose options that will keep their records clean. The lack of surveillance in wealthier communities makes further run-ins with the legal system less likely, ensuring a smooth resolution and no record. Additionally, inequality is amplified inside the courtroom. Because poorer and minority defendants are more likely to end up in court, they are more likely to interact with the court and be subjects of its regulation. This regulation includes punishment for inappropriate courtroom behavior, lack of cultural knowledge in interacting with courtroom actors and not being trusted. Overall, I find that poor and minority defendants are more likely to end up in court, more likely to be affected by the extraction of time and money, more likely to be punished for inappropriate behavior, and are less likely to be believed by judges and prosecutors while wealthier and white defendants have radically different experiences navigating the misdemeanors court system. Finally, continued interactions and regulation by the misdemeanors system have profound effects on political socialization. They shape the ways in which people apprehend the political world they inhabit and how they understand their political standing. State actors, particularly judges and prosecutors, encourage defendants to be productive and active citizens, all the while their own institutional roles entail facilitating predatory and extractive practices that drain defendants of resources and time. These interactions then frame defendants’ conceptualizations of “the state,” “democracy,” and their relationships to them. The end result is a deep sense of estrangement towards the state and government institutions. Defendants describe the political process in cynical terms and the vast majority do not vote. Yet quite revealingly, many defendants remain active and engaged in their communities through direct avenues of solidarity outside of traditional government institutions. This study contributes to a broader understanding of the state, the misdemeanor court system, political socialization, compound inequality, and rehabilitation. Poor and minority defendants in the misdemeanor court system deal with great hardships and form an adversarial relationship with the state while the state simultaneously expects them to be productive, market-oriented actors that are getting their lives on track. Instead, the misdemeanor court system is perpetuating conflict, affecting political socialization, and amplifying inequality.

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