Criminal Justice and Rationalization A Story Narrated by Bureaucracy and Technology By: Nicholas Williams

McDonaldization is a synonym of Rationalization coined by George Ritzer. Both terms orient themselves around the 4 dimensions: Efficiency, Calculability, Predictability, Control.

History of The Criminal Justice System

When it comes to the lifespan of the system, criminal justice has been around since the conception of civilization. The beginning of the criminal justice system in early times can be traced back to the societal shift from tribalism to feudalism. Tribalism is the idea surrounding commitment to one’s tribe, land, and friends/family, whereas feudalism emphasizes the ideas of ownership and earning land/wealth through labor. The criminal justice system was a way to maintain control over the people within the society to ensure that the feudalist standards were upheld.

The idea that the criminal justice system was created as a form of control further emphasizes the idea of rationalization within this field, and how the creation of the criminal justice system itself can be seen as a form of rationalization for our previous societies.

Criminal Justice Currently

A more recent but important moment in the history of the criminal justice law occupation was when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Criminal Justice Act into law. This meant that any defendant in federal court was ensured to have a professional legal counsel on their side. This opened an opportunity for the payment of court-appointed lawyers and would soon establish a full-time federal defender service within the judicial branch.

Yet another way that this field has increased its productivity, efficiency, and predictability is by standardizing its procedures.

This is where the idea of rationalization comes into the equation. To meet the increasing legal demands of the time and maximize the 4-dimensional areas of rationalization the criminal justice law occupation has adopted a few enhancements that come in the form of technology, new options for case management, as well as various bureaucratic rules and regulations that keep everything in order.

Technology and Communication

Ways in Which the Criminal Justice Field Has Been Rationalized Over Time

One of the most significant impacts of technology on criminal justice research is the digitization of legal resources. In the past, legal professionals had to rely on physical libraries and manual searches through numerous legal texts, which was a time-consuming and laborious process that can even be seen as impractical in current times. Today, with the creation of online legal databases and search engines, accessing and navigating through vast repositories of case law, statutes, and legal publications has become remarkably efficient.

Through this new wave of digitization, we have also seen a recent surge in Zoom court hearings which came about during the Covid-19 pandemic. The use of digital meetings to conduct hearings is a way to ensure that justice will continue to be served regardless of any physical obstacles that may manifest in the form of distance, safety concerns, or even disease.

One example of a possible safety concern within the courtroom can be seen in the recent events that happened in January of this year in Las Vegas, when 30-year-old Debora Redden, jumped over the bench and proceeded to attack Clark County District Court Judge Mary Kay Holthus during his sentencing. An instance that is now completely avoidable with the use of virtual court hearings.


Rationalization and the Story of Troy Anthony Davis

Another instance of technology being used for the rationalization of criminal justice is social media being used to convict criminals and even pressure the court to change a wrongly convicted person’s sentencing. An example of this is the case of Troy Anthony Davis who was convicted of murdering Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer from Savannah Georgia, and sentenced to the death penalty.

He spent 21 years in prison before his execution date and maintained his innocence throughout. During this time his story became popular across social media and hundreds of blogs and posts were made regarding his story. The story became so popular that there we protests held across the world filled with people angered about the injustice. Throughout this out-cry, Davis’ execution date had been moved multiple times. This was due to the court giving his legal team various extensions because of the attention and increasing amounts of evidence being received in favor of Davis’ defense.

This news attention and heat brought upon the state of Georgia caused the parole board to discuss the original sentencing once again. Ultimately, Troy Anthony Davis was executed on September 21, 2011. Although his story was not completely a success it does speak to how social media can and has had a strong impact on the criminal justice law occupation. I also believe that this story speaks to the dimension of control when discussing rationalization. It has in a way given the people a form of checks and balances over the decisions made within the court which has typically not been a phenomenon commonly seen throughout history.

Plea Deals

The recent decrease in courtroom appearances as well as the increasing use of plea deals is a trend that has significantly reshaped the way criminal justice lawyers work. According to the American Bar Association, nearly 98 percent of convictions nationwide have been a result of guilty pleas.

This phenomenon has been driven by a combination of factors, including the increasing predictability of sentencing outcomes, the standardization of plea-bargaining practices, and the efficiency considerations that undertone the widespread acceptance of plea deals. At the heart of this trend lies the concept of rationalized predictability, which refers to the ability to anticipate, with a generally high degree of accuracy, the potential outcome of a criminal case based on established sentencing guidelines, precedents, and norms.

The criminal justice system has evolved to embrace a more standardized and structured approach to sentencing, with detailed guidelines and formulas that consider various factors such as the nature of the crime, aggravation, or mitigating circumstances, as well as the defendant's criminal history which can lead to harsher sentencing. This rise in predictability has empowered prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even defendants to engage in informed negotiations and make calculated decisions regarding the possibilities of a plea deal.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are developing various protocols and frameworks for best negotiating plea deals, which often rely on sentencing guidelines, case precedents, and established plea-bargaining policies. This standardization has also streamlined the process, allowing for faster legal resolutions and it has reduced the need for drawn-out courtroom proceedings. Furthermore, the idea surrounding efficiency with going the route of a plea deal has made them an attractive option for both the prosecution and the defense

Legal Ethics In Bureaucracy

The development of legal ethics and the increasing bureaucracy within the legal field play a crucial role in shaping professional conduct as well as the responsibilities of lawyers in the criminal justice system. They also enforce a level of control not only over layers themselves but also over the court by creating a uniform set of protocols or courses of action.

In the past, ethical standards in the legal profession existed, but they were less formal and not often utilized. Lawyers primarily focused on advocating for their clients and often prioritized their client’s interests above all else. The notion of "client loyalty" was the number one priority, and there was a perception that lawyers were obligated to pursue every legal avenue to help their client’s case, even if it pushed ethical boundaries.

As the legal profession grew and became more sophisticated and standardized, concerns arose regarding the potential for the use of unethical or abusive practices. Instances of lawyers exploiting loopholes, engaging in deceptive tactics, or prioritizing personal gain over ethical considerations highlighted the need for a more grounded and comprehensive ethical framework that all lawyers are required to follow.

One of the key principles established in modern legal ethics is the duty of a lawyer to represent their clients while operating within the bounds of the law and ethical rules. lawyers are expected to advocate for their client's interests, but not at the expense of violating ethical or legal norms, this helps emphasize the idea that no one is above the law which is good when considering how the public perceives the criminal justice system. This delicate balance requires lawyers to navigate complex situations, weighing their obligations to their clients against their broader responsibilities to the legal profession and society.

Shift in Legal Concepts and Defense Tactics

The evolution of legal concepts and defense tactics is a testament to the dynamic nature of the legal system and its ability to adapt to changing societal norms, scientific advancements, and evolving ethical considerations.

One notable example is the concept of the "automatism defense," which has gained recognition in recent times but faced challenges and exceptions in its application. In the past, legal defenses were primarily centered around more traditional and familiar concepts such as self-defense, insanity, or diminished capacity. The idea of an "absence of consciousness" or a lack of "being of sound mind" was not widely recognized as a valid legal defense. Criminal responsibility was largely founded on the notion of intent and the ability to distinguish right from wrong, with little consideration given to involuntary or unconscious actions.

This argument operates on the principle that individuals who lack voluntary control over their actions due to a state of unconsciousness or involuntary movement should not be held criminally responsible.

This defense also challenges the traditional notion that criminal liability is solely predicated on the physical act itself and introduces the idea that an individual's mental state and level of conscious awareness should also be taken into account.

Irrationalities as a result of this Rationalization

Although rationalization is a powerful choice that helps propel the Criminal Justice law field into the future there are areas where these irrationalities can cause more harm than good. When various systems are rationalized to improve efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control there is always a point at which the dial moves in the opposite direction and new obstacles are created. These obstacles that have been created because of rationalization are called irrationalities.

Some of the biggest forms of irrationality created within the criminal law field are a result of emotional toll or bureaucratic overload that causes stress and poses a greater challenge when it comes to completing one’s legal tasks

Emotional Toll and Burnout

The emotional toll and burnout experienced by criminal attorneys is generally the very nature of their work. They are tasked with representing clients accused of extreme crimes, ranging from murder to sexual assault. These cases often involve victims, defendants, and families who are grappling with intense emotions, such as grief, anger, and fear. As a result, attorneys are forced to confront the overwhelming emotions and trauma associated with these cases daily.

One of the most significant challenges faced by criminal attorneys is the weight of responsibility they bear. They are entrusted with the duty of ensuring that their clients receive a fair trial and adequate representation, regardless of the severity of the alleged crime. This sense of responsibility can be hard to bear, particularly when the outcome of a case can have life-altering consequences for their clients and their families.

On one hand, they must cultivate empathy and understanding towards their clients to build a strong attorney-client relationship and effectively represent their interests. On the other hand, they must remain objective and detached from the emotional aspects of the case to make rational and strategic decisions to avoid it affecting their productivity and effectiveness as a lawyer. This constant exposure to trauma and emotional cognitive dissonance can lead to desensitization and emotional exhaustion.

Criminal attorneys may experience symptoms of burnout, such as chronic stress, anxiety, and emotional detachment. They may find themselves struggling to separate their professional and personal lives, leading to strained relationships, a diminished sense of well-being, and even substance abuse

Bureaucratic Overload and Procedural Complexity

The criminal justice system is full of complex rules, regulations, and procedures that can often result in a bureaucratic overload and procedural complexity for attorneys. This excessive administrative burden can have a significant impact on their ability to effectively represent their clients and perform their duties as legal professionals.

An example of these challenges faced by criminal attorneys is the sheer volume of paperwork and documentation required in the legal process. From court filings and motions to case management and record-keeping, attorneys find themselves inundated with an endless stream of paperwork. This administrative workload can be overwhelming, especially for those who are handling multiple cases at the same time. The complexity of the criminal justice system further exaggerates this issue.

Attorneys must remember and navigate lots of protocols, deadlines, and formalities, which can be time-consuming and mentally taxing. Instead of dedicating their time and energy to building strong defense strategies and advocating for their client's rights, they may find themselves bogged down by administrative tasks and procedural technicalities.

The constant and overwhelming pressure to meet deadlines, comply with regulations, and manage case files can take a toll on their mental and physical well-being, potentially compromising their ability to perform at their best.


When taking a step back and examining how the criminal justice law occupation has been rationalized, it can be concluded that the main players in this story have to do with the development of new technology in conjunction with the increasing bureaucracy present in the legal field. As time has gone on the criminal justice system has become a field that mostly relies on personal revelations, hard copies of legal documents, and slow/time-consuming procedures for a profession that would be seen as impossible to succeed in without access to new efficient forms of technology and strict regulations and precedents that control the way the court operates.

We can see a strong push for rationalization within this seemingly “old-school” profession. The development of new technologies alongside the creation of laws and procedures all help the system move more effectively while maintaining a level of trust as well as input from the public.

Overall, the use of technological advances in conjunction with new-age bureaucratic measures has successfully invaded an occupation that has been known for its tradition, and it is now hard to even imagine how the field could operate so successfully without it.

Future of Criminal Justice Law

Although the implementation of these procedures, regulations, and technologies have created a more efficient, calculable, predictable, and controlled workspace it is important to think about what this will mean for the future of this profession. This can be done efficiently when looking at the benefits of this rationalization in conjunction with various irrationalities that have since developed.

  • Due to these bureaucratic pressures as well as the increasing use of technology, we could see what has been referred to as the “Urberizuing” of the legal profession. This concept refers to the increase in lawyer autonomy and use of the digital market which will in turn open a real legal market within the gig economy.
  • It’s hard to tell if this will be a change that comes sooner rather than later, or if it is even a possibility for this profession due to the amount of involvement the federal government has within criminal justice law.

Nicholas Williams

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Class of 2027

Political Science and Psychology Double Major

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics Class of 2023

Parents - Shelton and Tonda Williams


Admin. “The Importance of Legal Ethics in Criminal Defense: A Guide.” The Fernandez Firm, 26 Oct. 2023, Accessed 8 Apr. 2024.

American Bar Association. “2023 Plea Bargain Task Force Report Urges Fairer, More Transparent Justice System.”, 2023, Accessed 3 Apr. 2024.

American Bar Association. “Model Rules for Lawyer Disciplinary Enforcement.”, 2017, Accessed 7 Apr. 2024.

Bohm, Robert M. “McJustice”: On the McDonaldization of Criminal Justice.” Justice Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 127–146,

Britannica. “Court - Judicial Lawmaking.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 2023, Accessed 8 Apr. 2024.

Chan, Janet. “Conceptualizing Legal Culture and Lawyering Stress.” International Journal of the Legal Profession, vol. 21, no. 2, 4 May 2014, pp. 213–232, Accessed 3 July 2019.

Clio. “Clio Legal Software.” Clio, 2024, Accessed 8 Apr. 2024.

Devers, Lindsey. “Plea and Charge Bargaining.” 24 Jan. 2011. Accessed 7 Apr. 2024

Díez-Ripollés, José Luis. “Rationality in Criminal Law Making. Rational Decision Making in a Complex Socio-Legislative Process.” Conceptions and Misconceptions of Legislation, 2019, pp. 51–80,

Drew, Chris. “19 Examples of Bureaucracy (2022).”, 29 Mar. 2022,

Faster Capital. “Collaboration between Forensic Accountants and Law Enforcement.” FasterCapital, Accessed 9 Apr. 2024.

Frug, Gerald E. “The Ideology of Bureaucracy in American Law.” Harvard Law Review, vol. 97, no. 6, Apr. 1984, p. 1276, Accessed 19 July 2020.

Georgia Resource Center. “Troy Davis.” Georgia Resource Center, 2024, Accessed 15 Apr. 2024.

Goldstein, Matt. “The Role of Mental Health in the Legal Profession.” Crimlawpractitioner, 25 Aug. 2016,

Gragg, Mavis . “HeirShares.” HeirShares, 2023, Accessed 16 Apr. 2024.


“Heirs’ Property - Farmland Access Legal Toolkit.”, 8 Feb. 2021, Accessed 16 Apr. 2024.

Maguire, Grace, and Mitchell K. Byrne. “The Law Is Not as Blind as It Seems: Relative Rates of Vicarious Trauma among Lawyers and Mental Health Professionals.” Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, vol. 24, no. 2, 7 Sept. 2016, pp. 233–243,

McDonald, William F. “Politics, Criminal Prosecution, and the Rationalization of Justice: Italy and the United States.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, vol. 14, no. 1-2, Jan. 1990. Accessed 10 Apr. 2024.

Michigan Criminal Lawyers. “The History of Criminal Law.”, 2024, Accessed 5 Apr. 2024.

National Institute of Justice. “Recidivism.” National Institute of Justice, 2024, Accessed 9 Apr. 2024.

O’Leary, Chris. “Legal Technology and the Future of Your Legal Practice | Legal Blog.” Thomson Reuters Law Blog, 3 Aug. 2021, Accessed 11 Apr. 2024.

Quednow, Cindy Von, and CNN. “Man Who Attacked a Nevada Judge Is Sentenced by That Same Judge to Prison for Separate Incident.” CNN, 8 Jan. 2024, Accessed 8 Apr. 2024.

Scigliano, Eric. “Zoom Court Is Changing How Justice Is Served.” The Atlantic, 13 Apr. 2021,

Sentencing Council. “Aggravating and Mitigating Factors in Sentencing Guidelines and Their Expanded Explanations – Research Report – Sentencing.”, 4 Mar. 2024,

Shechory Bitton, Mally, and Anat Mashiach. “From Their Angle: A Look at the Emotional World of Defense Attorneys Who Represent Sex Offenders.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 19 Feb. 2021, p. 0306624X2199480, Accessed 30 Dec. 2021.

The Christian Science Monitor. “Troy Davis Execution Protest Confronts Support for Death Penalty.” Christian Science Monitor, 2011, Accessed 16 Apr. 2024.

The Florida Bar. “Report: Lawyers’ Well-Being Falls Short.” The Florida Bar,

US Courts. “Criminal Justice Act: At 50 Years, a Landmark in the Right to Counsel.” United States Courts, 20 Aug. 2014, Accessed 17 Apr. 2024.

Vaughan, Steven. “Lawyers’ Ethics and the Rule of Law – Taking Forward the Debate.”, 30 Nov. 2023, Accessed 9 Apr. 2024.

Welty, Jeff. “All You Need to Know about Automatism.” North Carolina Criminal Law, 14 Feb. 2011, Accessed 7 Apr. 2024.

Yao, Yao. “Uberizing the Legal Profession? Lawyer Autonomy and Status in the Digital Legal Market.” British Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 58, no. 3, 11 July 2019, pp. 483–506,