assembly line justice | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

Assembly Line Justice is a  term used to describe the extremely rapid processing of cases by lower courts, often without due concern for defendants’ rights.

Assembly line justice refers to the fast and often impersonal processing of criminal cases in the United States court system. The term “assembly line” is a metaphor that implies that the criminal justice system is treating cases like products in a factory, moving them through quickly and without much attention to the individual circumstances of each case.

The term is used to describe the lower courts’ processing of cases, especially in urban areas where there is a high volume of criminal cases. These lower courts are often operating at maximum capacity, with limited resources and little time to devote to each case.

Assembly line justice can lead to a variety of problems, including a lack of attention to defendants’ rights, overburdened public defenders, and the rushed handling of cases by prosecutors and judges. Defendants may be pressured to accept plea bargains to avoid the lengthy and uncertain process of going to trial, even if they are innocent or have a strong case. The result can be an unfair and unjust system that is not responsive to the needs of individual defendants.

One of the most significant consequences of assembly line justice is the risk of wrongful convictions. When cases are rushed through the court system, there is less time for a thorough investigation and less opportunity for the discovery of exculpatory evidence. This can lead to wrongful convictions, which have a devastating impact on defendants and their families, as well as the broader criminal justice system.

Several factors contribute to assembly-line justice. One factor is the large number of cases that flow through the lower courts. In many urban areas, the criminal justice system is dealing with a high volume of cases, which can overwhelm the system and lead to shortcuts in the handling of cases.

Another factor is the lack of resources for public defenders, who are responsible for representing many defendants who cannot afford private attorneys. Overburdened and under-resourced public defenders may not have the time or resources to devote to each case, which can lead to a lack of attention to defendants’ rights and an overreliance on plea bargains.

The prevalence of mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws can also contribute to assembly-line justice. These laws require judges to impose specific sentences in certain cases, leaving them little discretion to consider the individual circumstances of each case.

To address the problem of assembly line justice, some advocates have called for reforms to the criminal justice system, such as increased funding for public defenders and changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Other proposals include reforms to the bail system, changes to the use of cash bail, and the use of diversion programs to steer low-level offenders away from the criminal justice system.

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Last Modified: 04/13/2023


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