Yale sociologist Issa Kohler-Hausmann's Misdemeanorland is a deeply researched and reported look at the operations of New York City's misdemeanor courts, where thousands of turnstile hoppers, pot smokers, and other low-level offenders churn through every year.
It's an area ripe for study. While felonious activity captures much of the attention of academia and journalism, focusing on incarceration "understates the reach of the criminal justice system and, in some sense, misrepresents the modal criminal justice encounter," she argues.
What Kohler-Hausmann finds is shocking. The rate of misdemeanor convictions in New York City dropped sharply during the era of "broken windows" policing, even as arrests for misdemeanor offenses spiked.
The reason convictions fell, she argues, is that the city's misdemeanor courts stopped performing their regular function—establishing facts and adjudicating guilt. Instead, they turned into an elaborate machine that marks, manages, and monitors offenders. It's a system for social control; convictions are somewhat beside the point. The process is the punishment.
It's hard to read Misdemeanorland without thinking of the case of Eric Garner. As journalist Matt Taibbi revealed in I Can't Breathe, an investigation into Garner's 2014 killing at the hands of police, the New York Police Department had harassed Garner for months because of his chosen career of selling "loosie" cigarettes on the street corner. They bothered him even when he wasn't selling or violating any laws.
If Taibbi's book showed one man's fateful encounter with this pernicious policing practice, Kohler-Hausmann gives us a picture of the system at a macro level. Misdemeanorland has a sociologist's love of charts and statistics, but it's still required reading for anyone interested in the rise of modern policing and the city that spawned it.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Misdemeanorland".
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