Petty Crime, Police, and the Basement of Justice
In the last chapter we drew a quick sketch of the criminal justice system in Alameda County. In this chapter we describe the bottom or base of the system. Most people were arrested for minor offenses. It was also the case that most people who appeared in court were arrested for minor offenses; they were rather ordinary people, somewhat more foolish, perhaps, than most, or more hot-tempered, or more unlucky. They dealt with the police, with justice or police courts, with some lesser civil servants. For many of them, a brush with the law was no great turning point in their lives; it left no permanent warp -- no more than an arrest for speeding would today. Yet when we lump all their experiences together, what happened to people's lives in these dingy precincts had great importance in society.
Each layer of criminal justice had its major and minor actors. At the bottom of the system, the police played a starring role. Most of our hard information about the police comes from Oakland. Other cities had police -- Berkeley, San Leandro, Alameda.1 But Oakland had the largest and most significant force. Also, by a lucky chance, the raw arrest records of the Oakland police have escaped destruction for our period, and we can learn a great deal from these.
In this chapter, we talk about police work in Alameda County and then add what data we have (alas, rather skimpy) about the work of the lowest courts -- justice courts and police courts -- as they handled minor crimes. (Superior Court and serious crimes will be treated in the next two chapters.)
Information on the police and on the petty courts is a mosaic made up of tiny details: entries in arrest books, scraps of paper, short paragraphs buried on inside pages of the newspapers. What do we learn when we are through?____________________