Doctoral student Avi Brisman (Emory University), supervised by Dr. David Nugent, will undertake research on legal consciousness, which is how people understand, imagine, and use the law, as well as their attitudes and feelings towards the law. Past research has typically focused on adults, neglecting a consideration of what young people know about the law or the criminal justice system (specifically, law enforcement and courts) and how they know what they know. This project provides an in-depth exploration of the development of legal consciousness among youth associated with a multi-jurisdictional community court (the Red Hook Community Justice Center or RHCJC) in Brooklyn, New York. The RHCJC also functions as a community center, offering a wide range of programs for youth who come to the RHCJC voluntarily to participate in community organizing, development, empowerment, leadership, and artistic programs.
The focus of the research is to explore how youth perceive law enforcement and courts, and how they conceive of justice and fairness. More specifically, the central research questions are: 1) How is legal consciousness shaped by the different kinds of experiences that youth have with the law and the criminal justice system via the youth programs at the RHCJC? 2) How do those unique experiences mold or define the substantive nature of their legal consciousness? and 3) Aside from the development of or impact on legal consciousness, what other effects do the youth programs at the RHCJC have on the lives of the youth? The researcher is gathering data through on-going ethnographic fieldwork at Redhook, including participant observation and informal and semi-structured interviews. Interviews with participants are being done at different stages of their participation, to capture the possibility that the youth's legal consciousness changes over time through sustained interactions with other actors in the program.
This project is important because it will shed light on the role that youth imagine for law and legal institutions in their community, as well as their own place in working with institutions and agents of formal social control. This project will also improve our understanding of how to invest in the resources (financial and human) to develop youth, community, society and their productive futures.
Legal consciousness—or how people understand and imagine the law—is an important avenue of inquiry for criminologists, legal anthropologists, and sociologists interested in the principles, procedures, legal discourses, and logic of decision-making and dispute resolution. Past research, however, has typically focused on adults, neglecting a consideration of what young people know about the law or the criminal justice system (specifically, law enforcement and courts) and how they know what they know. My project provides an in-depth exploration of the development of legal consciousness among youth involved in voluntary, non-punitive programs at the Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC)—a problem-solving court and community center located near the heart of the economically disadvantaged, predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, N.Y. Employing qualitative research methods, I have examined what young people know about the law and justice generally, as well as the nature and extent of their "legal literacy." My main objective has been to explore how youth perceive law enforcement and courts, and how they conceive of justice and fairness. Although my research is ongoing, some of my initial findings are as follows: For many of the youth program participants, "law" equals "law enforcement," and their legal consciousness is effectively a consciousness of law enforcement or the police. While these youth acknowledge that the law involves a wide range of players besides law enforcement officers, such as judges, lawyers, and other court personnel, these youth frequently speak about the law solely in terms of their interactions with police officers. This identification of the law with law enforcement appears to stem from the fact that while most Red Hook youth have regular (and often negative) interactions with police officers in and around the public housing projects, they have little occasion to encounter and interact with other legal players, even when they come to a court building, such as the RHCJC, on a regular basis. Youth do not sue each other, nor do they do not marry or divorce each other. They do not hire lawyers for real estate transactions or to address matters involving trusts and estates. Thus, for some of these youth, locating services and programs within a court building rather than a church or school, is incidental, and their conceptions and perceptions of the law are synonymous with their conceptions and perceptions of law enforcement. Many of the youth program participants express negative feelings about law enforcement, yet at the same time, when asked about their future aspirations, indicate that they would like to be cops or correctional officers. This suggests a tension between their experiences with law enforcement and their hopes and aspirations. In a similar vein, discussions with youth program participants suggest that they often have to balance how they discuss their involvement with the RHCJC. Because the youth are given a small stipend for their participation in RHCJC programs, they come to view the RHCJC as a place of work, rather than as a locus for an after-school program. (Indeed, many refer to their activities at the RHCJC as work, rather than as an extracurricular or after-school program) These youth state that while they receive a certain amount of "props"—or respect—for having a mainstream job that is not service-oriented (e.g., working at McDonaldâ€™s), they have to be careful not to come across as "corny" or as a "snitch." For many of these youth, then, their "gangsta" attitude and attire (e.g., low-hanging pants, do-rags) belie mainstream goals and aspirations—in other words, they have to convey a certain ghetto look and attitude to protect themselves from peers (i.e., to avoid seeming vulnerable to attack at school or at the housing projects where they live), even if doing so makes them more susceptible to police harassment and even if their long-term goals are for pro-social, middle-class lives (e.g., steady, gainful employment, house in the suburbs, spouse, children). While attitudes are not always a great predictor of behavior—while the ways in which young people view the law are not necessarily related to the ways in which they will act toward the law—many of the program participants have noted and have exhibited an improved ability to work in groups. Some of the program participants have themselves mentioned increased pro-social behavior outside the RHCJC since their involvement. For example, a number of youths have commented that since their involvement with an RHCJC youth program, they have engaged in far fewer fights and physical altercations with peers at school. A number of youths have boasted of improved grades and greater respect for teachers since the start of program involvement, despite continued dislike for school. Another youth has observed that he is far less likely to respond angrily and physically if accidentally bumped on the subway. This seems to suggest that the benefits of the programs extend beyond their legal focus.