#LSANOLA16 Preview: Ethnographic Explorations of Illegalities, Penality, and Risk/Security Part I

Thursday, June 2nd 12:45-2:30pm
NOLA Marriott Balcony M (4th floor)

These three linked sessions present detailed ethnographic examinations of the legal governance of crime, punishment, risk and security. Papers in Part I, presented here, consider efforts to resist and reform law, challenging spatial, social, and legal relations. Cutting across an array of topics (including the construction of illegality, policing, pretrial detention, mental health courts, sentencing mitigation, and post-prison experiences), this series of panels interrogates the practices, effects (material and semiotic) and rationalities at play in the governance of il/legality in specific settings. In doing so, these panels shed light on the entanglements between law and security (for example, the presumption of law’s instrumental role in promoting security), as well as on the ways in which social order is understood through the lens of criminal risk and crime control. In addition to generating discussion about the substantive foci of the papers, these panels are envisioned as an opportunity to reflect on the potential contributions of ethnography as a modality for exploring legality.

Organizer:  Robert Werth (Rice University)
Chair/discussant: Phil Goodman (University of Toronto)
Papers: Kathryne Young, Véronique Fortin, Stephen Wulff, Jessica Cooper, Brandon Hunter

Criminal Behavior as Local Resistance: The Sociolegal Significance of the Hawaiian Cockfight
Kathryne Young, Stanford University

This project analyzes the sociolegal significance of a highly localized form of illegal behavior: the Hawaiian cockfight. Cockfighting is illegal under federal law and in every U.S. state. Beyond its Geertzian resonance, the practice is an ideal site for examining criminal behavior’s embeddedness in social context. Its unusual combination of attributes, and its striking differences from, and similarities to, other illegal behaviors make it a particularly intriguing location for examining social processes at a very specific, localized level. Like the Native American use of peyote in ceremonies or female genital cutting, cockfighting shares cultural significance among participants, yet cockfighting’s significance is not primarily religious or racial. Like graffiti artist collectives, cockfighters see their activity as “resisting” dominant norms, yet cockfighters’ resistance is private, not shared with the larger world. Drawing on ethnographic data gathered at illegal cockfights in Hawaii, and in-depth confidential interviews of cockfighters, I depict this crime as it occurs on the ground, from the perpetrators’ perspective, and argue that cockfighting has at least two meanings in the lives of men who engage in it.

Explorations of Ethnographic and Legal Engagements
Véronique Fortin, Universite de Sherbrooke

This paper explores engaged ethnographic research as well as engagement with the law. It explores the multiple roles of the engaged legal ethnographer, who may at once be an activist (committed to social justice), a lawyer (committed to taking legal technicalities seriously), and an ethnographer (committed to ethnographic details and immersement). In the end, this paper is a call for engaged legal ethnographies. This paper builds on my doctoral research which aims to cast light on the interaction between law, space, and society through an ethnographically informed analysis of the legal processes that are at play at the municipal level in certain forms of occupation of public space in Montreal. I set out to do a legal ethnography of the uses of public space by marginalized people in Montreal, namely homeless people and protesters. In order to investigate the different ways in which the homeless and the protesters occupy public spaces and the legal responses to these uses (i.e. mostly tickets for violations of municipal by-laws), I have combined legal research on the construction of public space by the City government and the court system, with ethnographic research among different groups that are fighting for the rights of the homeless or for the defense of civil rights.

Police Liability Insurance, Grassroots Activism, and the Limits of Police Reform
Stephen Wulff, University of Minnesota

Based on ethnographic, interview, archival data, and news media coverage, this preliminary research explores the work of the Committee for Professional Policing (CFPP), a grassroots volunteer organization fighting for professional policing in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Specifically, I examine their efforts to combat police brutality and push for police oversight and accountability, as they work to pass a Police Insurance Amendment through a petition drive to place this initiative on the city election ballot. Drawing on Bourdieu’s notion of fields, this paper seeks to elucidate the prevailing values, strategies, and goals that shape activist practices within the policing arena, while highlighting the taken for granted assumptions of the field and what is thinkable or not thinkable, policy-wise, in terms of fighting for police reforms. Findings from this study may help to shed light on similar challenges facing activist groups in other mid-sized cities advocating for similar accountability mechanisms and pushing for police reforms. Further, understanding the grassroots challenges in pushing for police to carry professional liability insurance in cities like Minneapolis may help explain why so many cities are currently calling for the use of body cameras and not liability insurance.

Risking Justice: Causality and Conviction in California’s Mental Health Courts
Jessica Cooper, Princeton University

To set foot in a mental health court is to walk onto a hospital ward. Patients whom the state deems mentally ill wait to be called forward for an examination by the attending judge. Psychologists assess patients’ needs. Psychiatrists prescribe medication. Mental health courts are criminal courtrooms that attempt to solve what the state has identified as a problem of criminality by constructing, and attempting to cure, a problem of mental illness. Mental health courts move offenders with psychiatric diagnoses out of jail and into community psychiatric care, which is provided and managed by a courtroom-based team of judges, attorneys, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. As part of their therapeutic regimes, patient-offenders are required regularly to come to court, where they interact with legal and clinical personnel. As Republicans and Democrats remarkably align to take action against a criminal justice system that both parties agree is overextended, mental health courts have been promoted by both federal and state governments as a solution to a criminal justice system that is overly reliant on incarceration as an instrument of justice. Instead, politicians frame the type of social support and mental health care allegedly provided by mental health courts as a humane solution to the types of problems politicians believe land individuals in the criminal justice system: poverty and mental illness. This paper suggests that mental health court adjudication is a risky business. I make this argument based on two years of ethnographic inquiry in two mental health courts in Northern California, in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties.

Thinking Inside the Box: The Development, Meaning, and Implications of Washington DC’s “Ban the Box” Legislation
Brandon Hunter, Princeton University

On December 17, 2014 Washington, DC become another major American city to prohibit discrimination of an individual on the basis of their criminal record in matters of employment. With increasing attention is being paid to the consequences of the “tough on crime” era, reintegration measures like “ban the box” signal the success of activists across the country hoping to provide the ex-prisoner community a better chance at reintegration. Among the many challenges to reintegration identified by researchers and advocates  is the fact that employers are legally permitted to ask an ex-prisoner about their criminal record and that many employers refuse employment based on that information. To address this obstacle, ex-prisoner activists began advocating for legislation that would prohibit an employer from discriminating against an individual based on their criminal record. The recent success of these efforts in places like San Francisco and Washington, DC demonstrate the appeal of “ban the box” and mark a clear shift in the way ex-prisoners are viewed in our society. Yet a close look at “ban the box” legislation reveals its potential shortcomings as an effective solution to reducing employment discrimination against the ex-prisoner community.  The many variations of “ban the box” still place enormous burden on the part of ex-prisoners to recognize, report, and follow through on instances of discrimination. While such barriers to justice are inherent in any anti-discrimination scheme, ex-prisoners shoulder unique burdens that make access to the legal and administrative systems an especially difficult challenge. This paper traces the historical and political development of DC’s “ban the box” law by looking at the multiple interest groups involved in its passage, how those groups navigated the political process, and to what extent that process changed both the initial proposal, but also the interests and expectations of those advocating for the law. The “ban the box” campaign created obvious tensions between DC’s ex-prisoner advocates and the business community and these tensions played out in interesting ways throughout the political process. This paper suggests that DC’s “ban the box” legislation is an outcome of that predicament and must be understood within these constraints. Indeed, across the country many advocating for changes in ex-prisoner reintegration must confront this political reality even as the public seeks to undo many of the consequences caused by “tough on crime” policies. In spite of such constraints this paper remains hopeful, arguing that an examination of the political process provides not only instances of what the law once was and what it became, but also offers us a glimpse of what the law could have been and what it might become in the future.

 

 

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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