From the Chicago courts to the classroom: new professor engages students in her research

COUrtesy Of Dr. NicOle Van Cleve Courtesy of Nicole Van Cleve
Professor Nicole Van Cleve uncovered corruption in Chicago courts prior to coming to the university.

Staff Reporter

Ten years ago, discussion of corruption in the courts and the police force barely existed. It was rare to find people who believed there were unethical forces behind court rulings.

Professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve was not one of those people. Driven by curiosity and her responsibility as a sociologist, Van Cleve started her research in the Chicago Cook County Courthouse.

Every day she would walk in and get to know what she referred to as “the players,” the people behind the court rulings. Police officers, judges and prosecutors would talk to her, and the more she gained trust, the more information she received. It was then that she was able to uncover the corruption behind the courthouse.

“They started sharing how you do business in the court and it was sometimes ethical and sometimes not,” Van Cleve said.

She said judges would tell her to watch certain cases carefully because they’d seen police officers plant drugs on the defendant. She also noticed a racial disparity in the courts — most of the defendants were low-income people of color.

After observing the courts, Van Cleve continued her study by camping outside of the jails late at night. Dressed in all black, she hid and watched released prisoners exiting the jail, some without coats, some without a way home. She witnessed some having to walk 12 miles in the middle of night in order to get home — some had no warm clothing in freezing temperatures.

After years of work, Van Cleve was able to share her findings about the unethical business occurring in the Cook County Courthouse and Cook County Jail after a friend insisted they had to be released to the public.

In addition, Van Cleve has written two books. “Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court,” has received several awards, including the 2017 PROSE Category Award for Law and Legal Studies and the 2017 PROSE Award for Excellence in Social Sciences. Her most recently published book, “The Waiting Room,” describes the Cook County Jail and the problems that extend in and out of the jail cells.

While in the sharing process for her Cook County research, Van Cleve started teaching at Temple University for six years in the department of criminal justice while also helping in the department of sociology and working with Temple’s law school. Now, she is teaching her first semester at the university. She transferred to teach at the university because of the interdisciplinary programs within the department of criminal justice and sociology.

“[A] really great environment for learning because you have a lot of sharing of ideas and sharing of research and it makes for a very collegial environment,” Van Cleve said.

She approaches teaching by involving students in her work and research.

According to Van Cleve’s website, “her legal commentary has been featured on NBC News, NPR, MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, CNN and the New York Times.”

She mentioned one of her most challenging days was when she was teaching at Temple and only had three hours to prepare for her talk on the Rachel Maddow Show. One of those hours had to be spent in a lecture hall with her students. She shared with the students her research that she would present on the show and had them ask her questions about the research and comment on her presence and responses on the show. Van Cleve enjoys bringing research to the classroom, and she has brought that mentality to the university.

“When you do that, that is to me the best model of education,” she said.

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