I came to the question of machines from the study of numbers, more precisely the role that numbers play in organizations. Ten years ago, I wasn’t very interested in technology: I was a student in Paris, I barely had an email address, and what I wanted to study was criminal justice.
The fall of 2005 in France was marked by the events that came to be known as the “urban riots” (émeutes urbaines), a period of unrest among the young men and women living in city outskirts (banlieues). Their protests were triggered by the death by electrocution of two teenagers who had sought refuge in an electric substation while being chased by the police.
Over the next couple of months, cars were burning, the police were everywhere, and many young men of African and North-African descent were arrested, arraigned, and sentenced, usually to prison. Parisian courts relied heavily on an old penal procedure for misdemeanors, the comparutions immédiates (emergency hearings), which makes it possible to sentence defendants immediately after their arrest. The procedure was originally designed to control “dangerous” urban crowds in the second half of the 19th century.
During and after the urban riots, journalists and intellectuals denounced the revival of a bifurcated justice system, in which lower class and minority defendants were tried in a hurry, with meager resources for public defenders, insufficient procedural safeguards, and high rates of prison sentences. Crowds of friends and supporters congregated in the courts and attended the hearings, cheering the defendants and booing the judges. The police heavily guarded the courtrooms in order to prevent direct attacks on the magistrates.
In all of this, judges and prosecutors remained silent. No one knew what was really going on before or after the hearings. I decided to go behind the scenes to examine how prosecutors, judges, and lawyers worked on the cases and decided on the charges and sentences of the defendants. I was able to conduct a yearlong ethnographic study of several criminal courts, including one in Paris and one in a North-East banlieue.Read More… The hidden story of how metrics are being used in courtrooms and newsrooms to make more decisions