I'm Lovin' It...? The McDonaldization of Public Defense & Justice Eva Eapen

This Website's Goal:

As a student in SOCI57H at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was tasked with writing a research paper analyzing the effects of a phenomenon called "McDonaldization" on a particular field. I chose the field of public defense litigation. This website serves as a condensed sample of my findings within that research paper. I hope you find the following information as illuminating and compelling as I did.

The "Birth" of Public Defense

Public defense litigation was legitimized by the US Supreme Court in 1963 in the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright. They determined that under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, state courts were required to appoint attorneys for defendants who could not retain their own counsel.

Now, more than 60 years after the ruling, public defenders play a crucial role in preserving the integrity of the justice system–working to ensure that the accused receive fair treatment under the law irrespective of financial background. In their capacity as public servants, these litigators provide legal counsel, investigate cases, negotiate with prosecutors, and represent clients in court proceedings.

Lawyers, Justice Hugo Black wrote in the majority opinion, are “necessities, not luxuries”.

What is McDonaldization anyways?

Sociologist George Ritzer coined the term "McDonaldization" to describe the efficiency-driven, fast-food model that has come to dominate many aspects of society.

The four principles of this phenomenon are efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control.

Ritzer argues that over time, the principles of "McDonaldization" have begun to infiltrate various sectors of our society--from work to education to the practice of law.

Welcome to McDonaldization

Efficiency: Efficiency refers to the process of achieving maximum output with minimal input. In McDonaldization, this often involves streamlining processes, reducing human labor, and emphasizing speed and productivity. For example, in a fast-food restaurant, tasks are broken down into simple, repetitive steps, allowing for quick and efficient service.

Calculability: Calculability emphasizes quantity over quality. In a McDonaldized society, the emphasis is on the measurable aspects of goods and services, such as portion size, speed of delivery, and price. This leads to a focus on quantity rather than the qualitative aspects of products or experiences. For instance, fast-food restaurants often promote "super-sized" meals, prioritizing large portions at low prices.

Predictability: Predictability refers to the standardized and uniform nature of goods and services. In a McDonaldized society, consumers can expect the same experience regardless of location or time. This predictability is achieved through standardization of products, processes, and environments. For example, McDonald's restaurants around the world offer the same menu items, layout, and customer experience.

Control: Control involves the regulation and surveillance of both workers and consumers. In a McDonaldized society, control is exerted through strict rules, regulations, and surveillance systems to ensure conformity and efficiency. This can include standardized training programs for employees, surveillance cameras to monitor behavior, and scripts for customer interactions. The goal is to minimize deviation from established norms and procedures.

What does it look like to dish out justice in the same way one might a hamburger in a drive-through?

Plea Deals: A Cornucopia of McDonaldization

Plea bargaining is a process facilitated between a prosecutor and a defendant in which the latter agrees to plead “guilty” or “no contest” to a criminal charge in exchange for a concession from the prosecutor. In the years following World War II, plea bargains resolved 80% of all criminal cases (Rakoff, 2014).

Plea deals streamline the lengthy process of justice. They save time, litigation costs, and human capital by offering swift solutions.

The issue is that defendants are thus increasingly motivated to take guilty pleas–regardless of innocence–for fear of far harsher penalties if their trials yielded guilty verdicts. In fact, in 2012, the average sentence for federal narcotics defendants “who entered into any kind of plea bargain was five years and four months, while the average sentence for defendants who went to trial was sixteen years” (Rakoff, 2014).

As of 2018, only 2% of federal defendants went to trial at all (Gramlich, 2019). Plea deals had become a massive part of the American justice system.

The prevalence of plea deals is a verifiable win for McDonaldization, since plea deals bypass an expensive, laborious, and lengthy trial process. Regardless, this rampant pursuit of efficiency leads one to wonder if justice, too, is being pursued with such zeal. In the words of George Ritzer, “They never tell us for whom the system is more efficient.” (Ritzer, 2021).

Technological Advancements & Public Defense

As artificial intelligence and digital surveillance methods rapidly advance, public defense litigators have had to update their practices accordingly. For instance, Northpointe, Inc created a commercial tool called COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) to combat recidivism–the rate at which convicted criminals reoffend.

The algorithm has been utilized by New York, Wisconsin, California, Florida's Broward County, and other jurisdictions. It works by evaluating a variety of factors to provide a recidivism risk score for individual defendants.

ProPublica's 2016 report examined over 10,000 defendants in Broward County, Florida–comparing their predicted recidivism risk scores to the rate that actually occurred over a two year duration.

They found that Black defendants who did not recidivate over a two-year period were nearly twice as likely to be misclassified as higher risk compared to White defendants who did not recidivate (45 percent vs. 23 percent). In addition, White violent recidivists were 63 percent more likely than their Black counterparts to have been misclassified as a low risk of violent recidivism (Angwin et al., 2016).

These disparities, among others, are what we might call irrationalities arising from an increasingly rationalized system. Perhaps George Ritzer, himself, put it best: “The quality of the game has changed ... because of the emphasis on quantity” (Ritzer, 2021).

Algorithms that work against their clients are the only technological challenge public defenders have had to learn to navigate. They've also had to maneuver facial recognition, keyword search warrants, digital location tracking, predictive policing, body camera, and government hacking.

While technology has admittedly posed a hurdle to be jumped in the public defense litigation field, it has also proven to be a useful tool in streamlining practices within the field. As a result of legal research software--like LexisNexis--the days of arduous, manual legal research have come to an end. (LA Times Archive, 1994). This shift facilitated faster and more comprehensive access to legal information, empowering attorneys to conduct research with greater efficiency and accuracy.

In addition to revolutionizing legal research, technological advancements have also shifted marketing strategies, communication tools, advertising campaigns, and practice management platforms utilized by public defenders and public defense organizations (Pace, 2020).

Overworked, Underpaid

In 2024, public defenders must manage high volume caseloads for minimal monetary compensation. A Department of Justice sanctioned study in North Carolina found that 20% of attorneys had a pay rate of effectively under $10 per hour. (Beema & Buetow, 2023).

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 73% of county-based and 79% of state-based public defender offices in 2007 violated national caseload guidelines (Pace 2023).

Arguably, the nature of public defense litigators’ workloads and salaries function as methods of control in their own right. Minimized access to monetary resources, as well as limitations on time, constitute constraints on agency.

One young public defender in Baton Rouge, Louisiana detailed having 190 felony cases to juggle. She described meeting with clients for the first time on the day that their trial was scheduled (Center for Justice Innovation, 2023).

Perhaps another put it best:

“We're not practicing justice, we're practicing triage” (Center for Justice Innovation, 2023).

They were referring to the medical emergency practice of prioritizing patients based on their level of injury and the availability of resources, likening that desperation to public defenders’ attempts to manage their caseloads and adequately defend each of their clients.

McDonaldization & the Pursuit of Justice

In comparison to other developed Western countries, the U.S is incarcerating constituents at a rate that is four to seven times higher (Hayden, 2023). In terms of recidivism–the rate at which criminals reoffend–the United States has a 70% rate over the course of five years. 70% of American criminals will have reoffended five years after their release. As of January 2024, 98 percent of federal convictions and 95 percent of state convictions in the United States are resolved by plea bargains (Dervan, 2024).

Upon evaluation of my findings, I would argue that the current system is littered with injustice--and that the shift towards McDonaldized practices is a causal factor in this injustice.

Resistance to Rationalization: Fruitful or Futile?

As the effects of McDonaldization make themselves visible in the justice system, groups of lawyers have mobilized to keep the forces of rationalization at bay.

The Fourth Amendment Center was founded by the NACDL (National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers) in April of 2018 with a mission to “build a robust legal infrastructure to challenge outdated legal doctrines that undermine privacy rights in the digital age”(NACDL, 2018). This is one of the few resources at the disposal of attorneys like Kenyon, seeking to better comprehend how technology is being used against their clients.

In 2018, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers released a report titled “The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It”, a product of over two years of deliberate research on the slow death of trials in America. Representatives from leading groups in criminal justice attended the release event–including the Cato Institute, Human Rights Watch, Right on Crime, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the ACLU, the Charles Koch Institute, the Innocence Project, and Fair Trials International. The report served as a rallying cry for reform, bringing together eminent scholars and institutions alike to decry the erosion of the fair trial.

Such recognition and attempts at resistance certainly benefit individual criminal defendants and public defenders, but the larger question of whether it is possible to prevent further McDonaldization is yet to be answered.


Although McDonaldization is fundamentally changing what it means to practice criminal defense law in the United States, the profession itself doesn't seem to be going anywhere. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics substantiates that belief; the profession is steadily growing and projected “to grow 8 percent from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations”(U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).

As the legal field increasingly prioritizes efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, the result is "McJustice". I implore you to further investigate the knowledge you've gleaned from this webpage, and exercise your political and personal agency to support the pursuit of true justice.

Works Cited

Linked here is a cumulative list of the references I utilized to gather this information.

Term Paper

Linked here is my final term paper, if you're interested in getting a more in-depth view at the effects of McDonaldization on the field of public defense litigation.

Thank you!

If you've made it this far, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to go through this webpage. I hope this website has left you with some form of insight, and that you will consider taking action towards addressing the irrationalities we've explored in the justice system. If you'd like to connect with me further, my LinkedIn is linked here.