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 5
The Processing of Felonies

We have already briefly described the life cycle of a felony case. Felony charges could begin either with a grand jury indictment or, much more commonly, with an "information" filed after a person was "bound over" at a "preliminary examination." This chapter examines in more detail what happened between arrest and the filing of felony charges, and how felony charges were handled in trial court.


Types of Crime

The process began, of course, when a crime was discovered, and a suspect taken into custody. A "crime" was an act so defined by the Penal Code. This code was a sizable catalog of crimes. Dozens of acts were listed as offenses against the state. Most sections of the code changed very little from 1872 (when the code was adopted) to 1910, especially those parts of the code that defined basic, familiar crimes. The legislature added many new crimes to the books over the years; but these were rarely important. Most crimes in the bulky list of evil deeds were in fact quite inert; they never affected the work of Superior Court. The code made it a felony, for example, to try to "intercept" an inheritance, by fraudulently passing off some baby as an heir (§ 156). It was a felony to "willfully and maliciously sink or set adrift any vessel of ten gross tons and upwards, the property of another" (§ 608c). These were terrible crimes, to be sure; but they were rarely if ever committed, and they had nothing to do with the work life of police, prosecutors, or courts in Alameda County. A small number of crimes -- two dozen, perhaps -- accounted for all but a handful of the charges brought in Superior Court.

Nobody knows, of course, all of the crimes actually committed in Alameda County. We do know which ones were prosecuted. We have collapsed the various crimes into five categories: crimes against the person, crimes against property, morals offenses, crimes against public order, and regulatory offenses. Table 5.1 shows, in rough outline, the types of felony prosecutions that reached Superior Court between 1880 and 1910. Property offenses were easily the most common. Be-

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