Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Convictability and Discordant Locales: Reproducing Race, Class, and Gender Ideologies in Prosecutorial Decisionmaking

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Convictability and Discordant Locales: Reproducing Race, Class, and Gender Ideologies in Prosecutorial Decisionmaking

Article excerpt

Using ethnographic data, I examine prosecutors' discourse on case convictability (the likelihood of a guilty verdict at trial) in sexual assault cases. The analysis shows how prosecutors construct discordant locales through their categorization of victims, defendants, jurors, and their communities and the location of crime incidents. It demonstrates how prosecutors use discordant locales to justify case rejection. By ascribing stereotypical characteristics of a neighborhood to victims, defendants, and jurors, prosecutors construct distinct groups with different cultures who live in geographically separate spaces and have different schemes through which they interpret the everyday world. To construct discordant locale categorizations, prosecutors employ race, class, and gender imagery. Through this imagery they construct multiple normative standards of moral character of persons and of places. I argue that through the categorizations of place as discordant locales, prosecutors inadvertently reproduce race, class, and gender ideologies in legal decisionmaking. I conclude with policy suggestions for expanding and equalizing citizens' access to justice.

What categories do prosecutors use to assess sexual assault cases? What are the ramifications of using case convictability as a decisionmaking standard? How do race, class, and gender become salient in prosecutors' decisions?' In this article I attempt to answer these questions by analyzing ethnographic data about prosecutors' work in a sexual assault unit. In the process I show how micro-level processes such as categorization are linked to organizational practices such as the convictability standard and that these contribute to macro-level patterns of race, class, and gender differences.

In the course of everyday work, legal agents categorize places and persons to inform and account for their decisionmaking. Categories describe locations, actors, and actions (Sacks 1972). For example, they may describe a suspect as a "child molester," the location of an incident as "four-corner hustlers' territory," or a defendant's actions as "self-defense." Legal agents' choice of descriptions is purposeful activity, selected to accomplish particular tasks, such as establishing the credibility of a defendant or arguing for an out-of-home placement for a juvenile offender. The chosen category implies a set of supplemental features that are typically associated with the category (e.g., "welfare mother" may imply "poor black woman without motivation"). Thus, categorical descriptions are the basis for ascribing other characteristics, activities, and motives to the persons and places under consideration (Sacks 1972; Watson 1978, 1983; Atkinson & Drew 1979; Maynard 1984; Jayyusi 1984; Benson & Hughes 1983).

Categorization work involves the intertwining of description and evaluation (Matoesian 1993; Holstein 1993; Loseke 1992; Miller & Holstein 1991; Jayyusi 1984). Judgments are made through challenge and negotiation over whether descriptions "fit" "normative requirements of categorical incumbency" (Matoesian 1993:26). For example, do this woman's actions leading up to an assault give her the moral authority (i.e., her behavior corresponds with typical features of the cautious woman) to call herself a "victim" (Frohmann 1991; Matoesian 1993)? Or do that woman's behaviors qualify her as a "battered woman" and therefore entitle her to entry into a battered women's shelter (Loseke 1992)?

Previous research has demonstrated how descriptive practices have been used in legal processing. Person descriptions have been used to constitute moral character for purposes of negotiating plea bargains (Maynard 1984); to determine an organizationally relevant response to a juvenile's behavior (Emerson 1969); and to assess the credibility of a rape account (Frohmann 1991; Matoesian 1993, 1995). Place descriptions have been invoked by police (Sacks 1972; Bittner 1967; Rubinstein 1973; Skolnick & Fyfe 1993) and prosecutors (Stanko 1981-82; Frohmann 1991) to identify trouble and suspicion, suspects (Sacks 1972), and motives and identity (Atkinson & Drew 1979). …

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