Previously posted on SSRN.


What if instead of seeing criminal court as an institution driven by the operation of rules, we saw it as a workplace where people labor to criminalize those with the misfortune to be prosecuted? I offer three different ways to think about labor in criminal court: (1) labor as a source of sociological value, (2) labor as an input that generates certain measurable outcomes, and (3) labor as a vehicle to advance abolitionist reforms. First, through their quotidian activities, criminal courts’ workers enact a practical philosophy that communicates lessons about who and how we value each other. Drawing on ethnographic accounts, I argue that criminal courts’ actors—prosecutors and judges, among others—engage in “violence work.” The violence is not only physical but also social and structural. Their labor weakens social bonds and entrenches group-level hierarchies, expressed as race, class, and ability. Second, labor is an input that determines the size of the criminal punishment system. The addition of more prosecutors and their increased productivity lie at the heart of the historic growth in prison admissions at the turn of the twentieth century. In turn, as advocates devise reforms to dismantle mass criminalization, shrinking prosecutors’ offices may be the key to true transformation. Third, labor is also a vital site for struggle. The labor lens illuminates the promise of a specific strategy: building social movement labor unionism in public defenders’ offices.

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