|Scholarly examinations of race and class disparities in criminal punishment seldom consider how defendants—especially those who are white or middle-class—experience criminal justice processing. Analyzing in-depth interviews, ethnographic observations, and archival data among defendants and legal authorities in the Boston area, this dissertation offers a rare examination of how defendants from a range of backgrounds navigate the criminal justice process.
Chapter 1 reviews what scholars know about the nature and scope of race and class disparities—and what explanations have been offered to account for them. These explanations often focus either on the discriminatory actions of legal authorities or the differential criminal involvement of alleged offenders. Relying on cultural sociological literature, I theorize a new approach that examines how cultural, social, and economic resources shape defendants’ differential navigation of legal institutions and that considers how these patterns may contribute to disparities in criminal justice experiences.
Chapter 2 introduces the 49 individuals who shared their experiences of criminal justice involvement with me in interviews. In addition to conducting in-depth interviews with all respondents, I directly observed six of these individuals in court proceedings. All individuals in my sample—white and black, rich and poor—experienced childhood alienation in the home or at school. Alienation and stigmatization often coincided with experimentation with drugs/alcohol and other acts of delinquency. Similar delinquent behaviors aside, the realities of spatial, cultural, and moral boundaries between police and civilians differentially enabled middle-class and white working-class individuals to evade and negotiate police encounters in ways unavailable to their black working-class and poor peers. I suggest that adolescent race and class differences in policing and parental responses set the stage for divergent criminal justice experiences in adulthood.
Chapter 3 examines how race- and class-based situational resources shape understandings of legal authorities, especially lawyers. Many working-class and poor (especially those who are black) defendants in my sample exhibit a deep mistrust of their lawyers as compared with their middle-class peers. Mistrust is not simply explained by poor representation or dissatisfaction with legal outcomes; rather, mistrusting relationships are developed through at least four mostly a priori conditions: a lack of familiarity with professionals and professional expertise; cultural mismatching between attorneys and clients on the basis of racialized or classed cultural experiences and tastes; clients’ perceived mistreatment by lawyers at some point in the relationship (or even prior to the relationship, given prior personal or vicarious negative experiences with other legal authorities); and, the structural inability to choose one’s lawyer.
Chapter 4 examines how defendants’ interpretations of lawyers and the legal system more broadly shape their differential decision-making and ultimate punishment experiences. I develop the concept of “acquiring expertise” to describe how defendants who mistrust their lawyers often attempt to accrue legal knowledge and skills to use with—or without—the assistance of their lawyer. Whereas defendants who trust their lawyers often delegate authority to their lawyers to work on their behalf, those who do not trust their lawyers often withdraw from the attorney-client relationship and rely on their self-acquired forms of legal expertise. Defendants’ legal expertise is often less effective than lawyers’ expertise in achieving ideal court experiences for defendants, given the punitive responses of legal authorities and court procedures. Moreover, the conditions of mistrust among working-class and poor defendants also constrain their legal choices, resulting in preferences for legal strategies or sanctions that are understood by lawyers and social scientists to be more punitive than alternative strategies or sanctions. These processes have implications for disparities.
The conclusion offers implications for sociological theory and criminological theory. In addition, I conceptualize a new legal theory that offers policymakers, activists, everyday legal authorities, and the Courts the legal tools needed to remedy race and class disparities. Drawing on disparate impact theory and original interpretations of affirmative action in employment and education, I term this legal theory “affirmative justice.” From an affirmative justice perspective, I offer specific race- and class-conscious policy recommendations that could tackle the multiple, interacting causes (e.g., differential navigation, discriminatory treatment, and differential involvement in crime) of criminal justice disparities.