In 1884, Judge Henry Gildersleeve declared New York City a cesspool of theft and avarice. He blamed the deterioration of the city’s moral fiber on a “class of criminals”, a social entity consisting of New York’s most undesirable inhabitants. Gildersleeve was an authoritative witness of the newfound criminal element. As Justice of the Court of General Sessions, he sentenced thousands of men and women to prison each year. In carrying out this civic function, he and his colleagues exercised an enormous amount of discretionary power. Not only could each judge sentence a defendant however he saw fit, he could also call for an arrest without issuing a warrant and levy fines based on unfounded personal suspicions. These powers were stated explicitly in contemporary legislation, giving magistrates the legal precedent to selectively apprehend and penalize those individuals they deemed most dangerous to the public. By deciding whom to summon, indict, condemn, and imprison, the nineteenth century New York City judiciary played a decisive role in the construction of the criminal class.
Continue reading Legalized Bias and Judicial Malpractice in Nineteenth Century New York City