The Roots of Justice: Crime and Punishment in Alameda County, California, 1870-1910

By Lawrence M. Friedman; Robert V. Percival | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The Skeleton of the Law

In this chapter, we will describe, in rough outline, how the criminal justice system in Alameda County was put together. We will say a few words, in a preliminary way, about the way the system worked -- the people, the roles, the institutions.

Of the people, some were amateurs, plain and simple: the victims of crime, for example, and the men who sat on juries. Others made a living out of criminal justice: police, sheriffs, detectives, coroners, lawyers, and judges. Still others were more or less in between: part- time policemen, constables who had other jobs. Many lawyers, too, were on the fringes; they were civil lawyers who turned a criminal trick now and then. At the beginning of the period, the amateurs predominated -- they overwhelmed the system. Slowly, but definitely, criminal justice became more professional. More and more, the hands at the helm were those of people who did nothing else but work at the practice and law of crime control. This shift from amateur to nonamateur is one of the major themes of this study. We meet it first in this chapter; we will see it later in more detail.


The Pyramid of Justice

There were three levels of courts in California, ranked in the usual pyramid form. The basic criminal court, from 1880 on, was the SupeU+0AD rior Court. The court heard all felony cases. It replaced the old County Court, which tried criminal cases before 1880. Underneath the Superior Court were justices' courts or police courts -- petty courts that heard cases of petty crime. At the top of the pyramid was the Supreme Court of California. Until 1905, this was the only true appellate court.1 We consider appeals in Chapter 8.

Justice courts operated in townships. They handled cases of petty larceny; assault and battery;2 breaches of the peace; "riots, routs,

____________________
1
Some cases did go from justice or police court to Superior Court. See the next section of this chapter.
2
But not assaults committed on a "public officer in the discharge of his duties" or "committed with such intent as to render the offense a felony."

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