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Beyond the Courtroom Workgroup: Caseworkers as the New Satellite of Social Control

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Many jurisdictions nationwide are faced with overcrowded jails, backlogged court dockets, and high rates of recidivism for mostly nonviolent offenders. To address these complex problems, law enforcement officials have institutionalized alternatives to incarceration programs, including work furloughs, electronic monitoring, and treatment courts. These recent trends in legal reform are designed to reduce and prevent criminal behavior by helping to reintegrate defendants back into their local communities. One aspect that has been largely unaddressed in prior research is that jail-alternative programs are primarily staffed by caseworkers with outside nonprofit agencies. This important group of nonlegal actors plays a pivotal role in crafting decisions to divert low-level offenders from the criminal justice system; few studies, however, explore the organizational contexts surrounding caseworkers' everyday decision-making practices. In response, I draw upon ethnographic data to analyze the ways that pretrial release caseworkers in a California county evaluate defendants' entitlement to release on their own recognizance. The results of this study suggest that caseworkers exercise discretion beyond the traditional power structure of the courtroom workgroup. I conclude that caseworkers emerge as the new satellite of social control in contemporary courts.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: October 1, 2009

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