This book seeks to examine how the criminal justice system was used to discipline and organize labor in the Brazilian Northeast following the abolition of slavery. The records of the Recife House of Detention provide the primary documentary source for this ambitious project. Huggins sampled the incarcerated population at ten-year intervals during the period 1860-1922. The sample included all the slave detainees and 15 percent of the other detainees. An additional sample was taken for 1885 in order to examine closely the effect of abolition on arrests.
The resulting sample provides rich insights into the social background of the men and women detained both for felonies and for misdemeanors. Huggins also presents a useful overview of the social characteristics of the house of detention’s population during this time. In particular, she analyzes the sex, color, and skill levels of the sample population. This discussion would have been much improved if rates, rather than percentages, had been provided. However, it may be that adequate census data are not available. At the conclusion, the author offers an interpretation for changes in the mix of offenses.
Huggins argues that public order arrests were the primary mechanism used to force the urban underclass to accept rural employment. She demonstrates that misdemeanor arrests increased as a percentage of all arrests between 1800 and 1900, then fell to levels found before abolition. The author explains that the dramatic decline in these arrests in 1890 is a statistical anomaly probably caused by the use of some other detention facility. However, she found no evidence to support this contention.
Although Huggins consistently asks provocative questions, and the topic is interesting, there are a number of unfortunate flaws. The book begins with an overly long and loosely argued evaluation of the relative utility of modernization and dependency theories in criminological investigations. This is followed by a stale and imprecise application of dependency theory to Brazilian economic development. All the material presented here has been argued more convincingly and more thoroughly by other authors elsewhere. Less than half of the book is devoted to actual data analysis.
Huggins states that the decline and final abolition of slavery forced the political authorities of the sugar zone to use the legal system to compel workers to accept the brutal, poorly compensated work of the sugar industry. Public order arrests, in particular, were used to force rural workers out of the city of Recife and back into the countryside. Unfortunately, there is no evidence in these records that individuals detained in Recife ever returned to the countryside or accepted work in the sugar industry. It would have been helpful if Huggins had demonstrated that the misdemeanor arrest cycle coincided with the labor cycle of the sugar industry.
Comparative data drawn from studies of contemporary societies suggest that the arrest rate for misdemeanor infractions in Recife was actually quite low. Cities that did not experience the transition from slavery to free labor commonly registered higher rates. The peak arrest rate for misdemeanors in Recife was 18.5 per 10,000 in 1885. By comparison, the city of Buenos Aires in 1886 during the period of massive European immigration had a rate of 800 misdemeanor arrests per 10,000. Similar rates can be found for Philadelphia, Boston, and other North American cities. Without additional corroborating data, there is no reason to accept the hypothesis that increases in the Recife misdemeanor arrest rate are best explained by the need to force former slaves to work in the sugar industry.
Despite these failings, scholars interested in crime and policing in Latin America will find this a welcome addition to the literature. Huggins has found a valuable resource and provided a helpful summary of arrest patterns for an important period in Brazilian history. I suspect that her analysis will be discussed and challenged by future investigators.