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.
Crime in 19th Century New York City was often executed out in the open. One of the greatest threats to day-to-day life was posed by young pickpockets who thrived in crowded, busy streets in broad daylight. The public nature of the offense made it all the easier to incarcerate those who committed it. Similarly, William M. “Boss” Tweed, leader of Tammany Hall, exerted his corrupt political influence via holding highly visible public office, making no effort to obscure the massive gains he and his ring were able to make as a result of their thriving power. However, because of both Tweed’s personal wealth and the focus the criminal justice system had on eliminating low-lives such as pickpockets, Tweed was sentenced to disproportionately light sentences in comparison to the gravity of the many crimes he committed. This is reflective of the difference in treatment of crimes committed by “high criminals” (criminals with great power and wealth) and “low criminals” (criminals with no power who have little choice but to commit crime to get by).