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

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

Chapter 10
A Concluding Word
We have traveled a fairly long road, from the beginning to the end of the processes of criminal justice in Alameda County. In this brief chapter, we will try to sum up a few of our basic findings, for the patient reader who has come along this far. Later, we will discuss a few of these results in a bit more detail, and engage in further speculation. But first, some selected conclusions:
1. Criminal justice in Alameda County was structurally very complex. It was arranged in definite "layers," each with its own procedure and function.
2. Serious crime was on the decline in Alameda County. Much police effort went into order and discipline -- enforcing rules about how to behave in public. The "students" in this school of the streets were overwhelmingly adult working-class men. The modal crimes were crimes of drunkenness and brawling. The police (and petty courts) also served, as they do now, as social agencies of last resort.
3. Compared to today, accused felons were much more likely to go to trial. But even in 1880, judge and jury decided the fate of less than half of such defendants. The system became less adjudicative over the years. Plea bargaining was present from the start. The guilty plea was frequent, and became more so. Trial by jury slowly declined. Fewer defendants took advantage of their "rights," although most defendants had attorneys at the trial stage. Appeals were few, and mostly unsuccessful.
4. Property felonies were much more common than felonies of personal violence in Superior Court. Sex offenses were not terribly common, but carried harsh penalties. The period seemed to evince a growing concern about sexual morality, at least at the level of law making.
5. A handful of great cases each year took advantage of the full panoply of "rights"; these cases made good stories, were eagerly followed by the reading public, and seemed to teach important moral and legal lessons to onlookers and to society in general.
6. There was a shift in emphasis, all up and down the system, from the crime itself to the criminal. Punishment was supposed to be cut to the individual case. The question was, Could the defendant be re-

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