Do you want Justice with that? A look at the McDonaldization and privatization of the U.S. Criminal Justice System[*]



Noelle Herring, Graduate Student, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada-Las Vegas






On a daily basis, we are surrounded by an ever-changing environment in terms of product, technology, policies and other facets of life. Bigger is better, faster is more efficient and the latest and greatest version is the bandwagon everyone wants to be on. As a society, we’ve been molded in the expectation that as a consumer, one should ultimately seek more bang for the buck, and to spread the dollar as far as it will go. These expectations are more apparent in the consumer world, but upon closer inspection the same expectations can be seen in the criminal justice industry as well. Everyone would prefer a sense of security at a minimal cost to the taxpayer, and the up and coming technology is expected to help law enforcement solve the crime and catch the bad guy. More so recently, the criminal justice industry has become just that- an industry that is booming and it continues to grow. With this given industry viewpoint, several pathways will be examined within this writing that will further provide a look into the criminal justice forefront and that which it has evolved into with a business type approach, a corporate interest, a private sector, and a growing demand. Is it possible to maintain the fundamental goals of the criminal justice system while a profit focused transformation takes place?


Capitalist Interests


In line with what many have come to describe as not a criminal just system, but rather a crime control industry, Karl Marx forewarns this transformation, and seemingly hits the nail on the head:


The criminal produces not only crime but also the criminal law, he produces the professor who delivers lectures on this criminal law; and even the inevitable textbook in which the professor presents his lectures as a commodity for sale in the market…. Further, the criminal produces the whole apparatus of the police and criminal justice, detectives, judges, executioners, juries, etc….Crime takes off the labour market a portion of the excess population, diminishes competition among workers, and to a certain extent stops wages from falling below the minimum, while the war against crime absorbs another part of the same population. The criminal therefore appears as one of those natural “equilibrating forces” which establish a just balance and open up a whole perspective of “useful” occupations (Karl Marx in Shelden, 2008, 271).


From the academic standpoint, the most fitting explanation available for this shift from the public sector to the privatized gain of corporations and its sale of crime is Marxist theory. To preface some of the examinations within this paper, it is important to understand the basic ideas presented within the Marxist theory and it’s impact on the criminal justice industry.

 Marxist theory falls under the genre of critical criminology. Critical criminology encompasses a variety of theories that focus on the conflict and power relations between various classes of people (Walsh & Ellis 2007). Marx suggests that the most important aspect in social life is the mode of production, which in turn has an effect on every other aspect of society. The current mode of production in the United States is that of the capitalist system. Social, economic and political power has been concentrated into the hands of a small ruling class (Akers & Sellers 2004). Capitalism is a two-class system comprised of the ruling class that owns the means of production and the workers or masses who have only their labor to sell. The owners attempt to keep labor costs minimal and the worker attempts to sell their labor at the highest price, in order to maximize profits and compete in the global marketplace (Walsh & Ellis 2007). The capitalists ultimately control the political state. The political power is used to manipulate the legal and criminal justice system to promote the interests of the capitalist class and further its position of power (Akers & Sellers 2004).

The Marxist theory tends to focus more on the criminal law and criminal justice system itself, rather than the causes of criminal behavior. Marxists focus more on the control by the system (the fourth component of McDonaldization, which will later be discussed) rather than the behavior of those who participate in criminal acts (Akers & Sellers 2004).  The economic and social arrangements - which are ultimately seen as the material conditions of people’s lives - determine what they know, believe, value and most importantly in terms of this criminal justice focus, is how they will behave (Walsh & Ellis 2007).

Bonger, who was a Dutch criminologist, and the first who took a completely Marxist approach to crime analysis, suggested that the criminality of certain individuals was due to the level of their innate social sentiments. These aforementioned social sentiments were altruism, which is an active concern for the well-being of others-and the opposite - egoism, which was a concern for one’s own selfish interest. With these social sentiments in mind, it is said that a capitalistic society generates egoism, and those individuals who are infected by egoism are alienated from authentic social relationships with other human beings, leaving everyone prone to crime in the long run (Walsh & Ellis 2007). Some of the central themes in contemporary Marxist theory in focus of crime and capitalism include the following:


  1. Capitalism shapes social institutions, social identities, and social actions. Divisions based on race, gender, class, and the manner in which people act toward one another is determined by the “mode of production.”
  2. Capitalism creates class conflict and contradictions. The struggle to obtain the means of production, which is typically owned by a handful of the population, this creates conflict among groups. The contradictions that surface in a capitalist set-up are basically the surplus population.
  3. Crime is a response to capitalism and its contradictions. The surplus population is expected to commit crime in order to satisfy the basic need for survival.
  4. Capitalist law facilitates and conceals crimes of domination and repression.
  5. Crime is functional to capitalism. What was once known as the criminal justice system has now been deemed the crime control industry. There is job security in the criminal justice field.
  6. Capitalism shapes society’s response to crime by shaping law. The powerful decide what should and should not be criminalized, and who falls into the classification of being a criminal (Shelden et al. 2008, p. 86).


Under ideal circumstances, the law is intended to operate in the interests of the whole society. Unfortunately, in realistic terms, the criminal justice system is structured to serve the interests of the ruling class. With privatization of the criminal justice system on varying levels, a shift to benefit the ruling class can once again be seen right before our very eyes. A somewhat disturbing example of the capitalist gain in our criminal justice system is the shift towards the “McDonaldization” of our criminal justice system.


Super-Sized Crime


The McDonaldization model is a simple systematic approach to what has been deemed a successful game plan, thus attributing to the remarkable value and growth of the fast food corporation this plan has been named after. The McDonaldization model is comprised of four key concepts: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. The term McDonaldization was created by a University of Maryland sociologist and professor, George Ritzer, to represent the combination of modern day 20th century American practices such as scientific management, assembly-line production and bureaucratization (Ritzer 2004). The success of the McDonaldization structure can be seen from both the consumer and provider viewpoints, and it can be applied to a variety of sectors in the American lifestyle, the criminal justice system included (Ritzer 2004; Robinson 2005). McDonaldization can and has been applied to social institutions such as education, religion, the media, medicine and society in general (Bohm 2006).  When the McDonaldization model is applied to the criminal justice system, it has been cutely named “McJustice” (Bohm 2006). It is present in a variety of outlets that an individual comes in contact with on a daily basis, but for the purposes of this writing the McDonaldization model will be applied and analyzed in focus of the criminal justice system specifically. 



The first component of the McDonaldization model is efficiency, or ultimately the optimum method for getting from one point to another (Ritzer 2004). On the consumer end, the goal is to efficiently satisfy whatever it is that is being sought, and from the providing end, it is desirable that employees function in an efficient manner by following steps in a predesigned process. To ensure highly efficient work, organizational rules and regulations are a must (Ritzer 2004). Efficiency in the criminal justice system has been likened to an “assembly line” process for those who have contact with the criminal justice industry. The assembly-line process within the court system is however not a new concept to the criminal justice system, yet it falls neatly into place with the efficiency branch of McDonaldization. Herbert Packer is credited with the initial catch phrase, as he describes the need for assembly line justice in his crime control model (Packer 1968, Bohm 2006). In Packer’s model, the need to achieve quicker closure and achievement of finality of cases is stressed (Packer 1968, Bohm 2006).

 To keep up with the increasing number of individuals who come in contact with the criminal justice system, a systematic approach is merely an attempt to maintain efficiency. The best example of the efficiency in relation to McDonaldization is within the court system. The most prominent display of assembly line, “take a number” approach, is the plea bargaining of cases, which occurs in more than 90 percent of all cases, rather than trial (Robinson 2005). The use of plea bargaining allows more individuals to be held accountable for their actions, thus making the system more efficient on the “provider” forefront (Robinson 2005). Many argue that plea bargaining is unjust, and stems from an overwhelming caseload, understaffed and underfinanced courts. However, if the assembly-line approach allows the court system to keep up with the quantity of cases, and in turn appears to be more efficient, it is unlikely to change.

The push towards efficiency can also be seen in policing. A move from paired teams in patrol vehicles to single unit occupants can also be seen as a push towards more efficient tactics within police departments (Robinson 2005). An example is the use of single-manned squad cars, where an officer is taken from his partner’s vehicle and is now put into his own vehicle, and as a result, increases overall police presence. Is this in the officer’s best interest? A variety of more problem-oriented policing tactics and zero-tolerance patrol techniques can also be seen as a push towards making the criminal justice system perform at its top efficiency level. For the general population, a general consumer, the increased prison population would appear to be yet another checkmark towards top efficiency levels within the criminal justice network. The system is seen as efficient, because it is taking the offender off of the street, thus preventing any further criminal acts to be committed.




The second element to the McDonaldization model is calculability. The “more bang for your buck” is the idea of this concept. From a quantitative aspect, the products’ size and cost as well as the services offered (and the time it takes to offer the services) come under scrutiny (Ritzer 2004). In a society where bigger is better and there is a need for more, more, more, the providers in the industry have honed in on this aspect of the consumers desire. As a summarization of the calculability aspect within the criminal justice system, it ultimately comes down to a satisfaction with more criminal justice (quantity), rather than better criminal justice (quality) (Robinson 2005). When people use their hard earned income towards taxes, they want the assurance of getting the best deal and optimal safety. Time is money in our present day society that is constantly on the go.

The most prominent example of McDonaldization’s calculability within the criminal justice network is the “war on drugs.” As an uneducated society, there is willingness to fund and support a $50 billion war on drugs (as of 2007). What the general population doesn’t see, or probably doesn’t care to know, is that the majority of these monies go towards domestic law enforcement, while prevention and treatment received the lesser percentage of that $50 billion chunk of change. In turn the domestic law enforcement agencies utilize an asset forfeiture program while fighting this so-called “war on drugs”, which allows for more training on how to combat drug use (Robinson 2005). As the consumer/taxpayer we’re willing to build more prisons if needed, and lock ‘em up for longer periods of time, yet we again fail to give notice to the programs and movements that assist in community re-integration, or even before imprisonment takes place, the means for preventative measures. It’s similar to an out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality. As long as the drug induced criminals are out of our hair, we’re willing to build more, spend more, and blindly create more of a future problem. So with all of this spending on more prisons to lock away more than five times the rate of other democracies including Germany, France, Canada, and England, then we should expect to have little or no crime right? Wrong. As Robinson points out, there have not been substantial reductions crime rates or in drug abuse and use (2005). Sounds like somebody made an error in their calculations.




Humans are creatures of habit. People have a hard time adjusting to change. Predictability is the third concept in the McDonaldization model (Ritzer 2004). People want the assurance that the services and products involved are consistent regardless of location and point in time.  An employee’s behavior is predictable, as there are certain rules to follow, certain training criteria that must be met, and expected ways in which to respond if presented with a particular situation. These guidelines are set in place so that the consistency leaves no room for surprises which may have an undesirable effect. These guidelines are also set in place to avoid any potential disruption in everyday operations.

In relation to the criminal justice system, predictability has been likened to the deterrence theory that includes swift, severe and certain (predictable) punishment. This component is obviously compromised considering that some criminals are never apprehended. In an effort to counter-balance this what-if, and provide predictability within the system, offender profiling methods are used (Robinson 2005). Now, if the red flags have not already been raised, feel free to raise them now in honor of obvious potential issues that may arise when using predictive profiling. Disparities in class, race, and gender begin to surface when law enforcement uses the predictable tactics (Robinson 2005).

Once again, plea bargaining within the court room is also notable in the evidence of criminal justice predictability. Certain sentence lengths, and bail amounts are set to typically correspond with a particular crime. Predictability also becomes a vital part in the corrections branch of the criminal justice network. The difference between minimum versus maximum security facilities is based off of a prediction of the offender’s behavior. Whether or not an inmate is granted parole is also subject to prediction (Robinson 2005).




The fourth and final key point in the McDonaldization approach is control. Limited options and potentially uncomfortable situations enforce the issue of control. The control aspect of McDonaldization is implemented by the use of nonhuman technology as well (Ritzer 2004). This shift from human workers to technological preferences supports the idea set forth by Marxists in the demoralization of the unemployed. According to Marxist theory, people need to be productive in life and work; however in a capitalist system people who find themselves in “assembly-line” justice experience demoralization, and no attachment or pride in their work. Those who feel the sting of demoralization most blatantly are those who are unemployed, perhaps those who have been laid off due to technological advancements within their previous workplace. With fewer options, there is less likely a chance that the consumer will stray from the path of predictability, and with technological advancements, there is less room for error from the employee.

 In criminal justice terms, control is the epitome of its purpose (this isn’t a good thing). The criminal justice network controls many aspects of people’s lives, sometimes unbeknownst to the individual involved. For the law-abiding citizen the criminal justice system has control over their actions. These people act a certain way and follow the laws set in place in hopes that their behavior will avoid contact with the system all together. Many would agree that the thought of going to jail for any period of time would make for an uncomfortable situation. For those individuals who have the unfortunate opportunity of entering the criminal justice system, the degree of control is increased tenfold. These individuals are now controlled on a variety of levels, most obviously the subjection to a jail or prison facility. Inmates are told when to eat, when to shower, when to exercise, etc.

The control increases even more so for those individuals who find themselves in super-maximum facilities. Robinson makes an uncanny parallel between these prisons, the fast-food industry, and the super illusion created (2005). The fast food industry pushes the super-size value, to give the consumer the impression that they are getting more value for their money, when in actuality, the increased doesn’t really seem to benefit the consumer overall. The criminal justice system gives its consumers (those who pay an arm and a leg for the supermax prisons to be built) the impression that because these particular criminals are locked up and controlled, they are safe (Robinson 2005). What the consumers fail to realize is that most of these inmates will eventually finish their sentence, and be released. These individuals will have to reintegrate into society. You would think the consumers who are contributing to the super-maximum prisons would have equal concern for certain programs to be set in place for assurance that preparation and a beneficial adjustment back into the general population takes place. Again, out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality is present. Once an individual is released from jail or prison, and they make an “exit” from the criminal justice network, control is still maintained.

As the topic of discussion at various points throughout this semester’s class, an individual who commits a crime is seen as a criminal for life in certain aspects of society. The need to register due to a felonious status controls an individual. A criminal conviction controls the potential for employment, housing benefits, rights, and other potential assistance. It is apparent that once a step into the criminal justice system takes place, control is ever present to some degree.

So is McDonaldization really that bad? Yes and no. If the model is utilized in a responsible manner, then it could be seen as beneficial to the criminal justice network. However if the criminal justice system loses sight of the “compassion of human nature” (for lack of a better word) and the policy makers and other key players in the system solely focus on the “more bang for your buck” viewpoint, it could lead the justice system down an undesirable and ultimately ineffective road. 


Private Profits


By applying the McDonaldization principles to the criminal justice system, in which things are run similarly to that of a business, another issue that correlates to this mindset is that of privatization. If various facets of the criminal justice system were privately operated, would the four main principles of McDonaldization be more prevalent towards the goals and focuses set forth by the criminal justice system, or could this lead the system into the path of corporate competition, greed, and lackluster quality that affects people’s lives on a daily basis? What initially started out as a system with a societal focus has now become the cash cow for numerous private interests. Many would argue that the criminal justice system, which should be more appropriately be referred to as the criminal justice industry, (due to the vast reaching that crime and crime control takes on) has experienced the phenomenon of “socialized costs and the privatized gain” (Dyer quoted in Shelden 2008). Crime has become a commodity, rather than a social issue that we face on a daily basis. With crime being the topic of entertainment (movies and television shows), educational focus (criminal just and criminology degrees offered at universities) and business ventures it is inarguable that the criminal justice system reaches out and affects literally everyone in the general population. The criminal justice industry just keeps growing-on a variety of levels.


Private Penitentiaries


            Currently one of the most prominent examples of privatization in the criminal justice world is that of the prison industry. In a matter or thirty years, the prison population has jumped from 220,000 prisoners housed in state and federal prisons, to a whopping 1,470,045 inmates (Lukemeyer & McCorkle 2006). The money used to maintain and operate these facilities has seen an 80% increase over a shorter time frame, totaling $34.1 billion in the 2000 budget (Shelden 2008). One of the first and perhaps most obvious questions that may come to mind is: Where are all of these people being placed, and who’s paying for it? Most state prisons tend to operate at an estimated 3% over capacity level, and federal prisons have been known to reach populations that are 24% over capacity (Benson 1997). In 1985, two-thirds of the states within the nation were under court order to correct overcrowded prison populations, which is ultimately a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment (Weiss 1989).

            The public wants their streets safe, yet they are hesitant to pull from their pocket to house those who are perceived as the “danger that roams the streets”. The result to this dilemma is privately managed prison and jail facilities. When a prison facility experiences privatization, that facility is under management of that particular corporation. Some pre-existing facilities are handed (contracted) over to the prison corporation, or a new facility is built from scratch and run by the corporation (Shelden 2008). In topic of privatization, it is important to make the distinction that the privatization that currently takes place in the U.S. criminal justice system is at most, partial privatization. Complete privatization would control all decisions regarding the resources used in a protection of persons and property (Benson 1997). Whether or not complete privatization takes place is arguable and perhaps only time will tell. Many contest that regardless of cost effectiveness result (if any); complete privatization is unlikely to take place due to a variety of political pressures (Benson 1997).

            As of 2000, there were more than one hundred privately managed facilities that were either under construction, or already in operation for adults (Lukemeyer & McCorkle 2006). It takes an estimated $105 million towards the construction of a single prison facility (Shelden 2008).

            Two of the most prominent players in the game of privatization are Wackenhut and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA has an estimated 59 facilities that are run throughout the world, and in 1995 the corporation saw annual profits reach an estimated $207 million (Shelden 2008, Benson 1997). CCA was so confident in their “product” that the corporation began construction on a two thousand bed facility in California. At first glance, this may not seem like an abnormal venture, considering that construction and operation of prisons is what the corporation does, however the construction began before a contract with California’s Department of Corrections was even discussed. Confidence? Maybe. Either that or CCA’s knowledge that the state’s prison population was close to doubling the designed occupation capacity permits for the corporations “If we build it, they will come” mentality (Benson 1997, Gunnison 1997). The Wackenhut Services Corporation not only has interest in the prison industry, but the company also provides police and security to a variety of other government units in Florida, Nevada (for the nuclear test site) and Texas (Benson 1997).


Criminal Goods


            From laundry, food services, inmate transportation, to telephone services, the private interest within correctional facilities has already had its foot in the door for quite some time. However the intensity and scope of this private sector has expanded over the past several decades. When one considers all of the ‘commodities” that go into the construction, daily operation and maintenance of a single prison or jail facility it’s not surprising to figure that the companies that specialize in these “goods” are knocking at prison doors to cash in on a contract. The market for such products has expanded so greatly in fact, that there is a “corrections yellow pages” available, to thankfully make shopping much more organized for the consumer. With such a competitive market afoot, the array of advertisements for such products is plentiful as well, throughout various reading selections within the crime control industry (Shelden 2008).


Inmate for Hire


            The private companies not only show interest in the construction and maintenance of these facilities, but they have also shown interest in the inmates themselves. Privatization can also be taken from the perspective of the available labor within prisons. The utilization of cheap inmate labor has many private companies seeing the flash of profitable dollar signs sitting within the prison doors. Companies such as Bank of America, Victoria’s Secret, Microsoft and Chevron are just a few manufacturing businesses that use prison labor as a means of cutting operation costs and maximizing the dollars that go into the capitalist pockets (Shelden 2008). If this isn’t a prime example of a capitalist fundamental to which owners keep labor cost minimal and the worker sells their labor at the highest price, then I don’t know what is. Oh wait, the main contradiction in the scenario is on the behalf of the worker. Considering that this particular worker is in an environment to which their rights are modified, makes a daily amount that probably isn’t in equivalency to minimum wage, and has no benefits or regulations to keep the system in check-a slight contradiction, but ultimately the same principle- the owner wins.


Does Privatization Make a Difference?


            Many argue that if prisons were taken over privately, the contractors would provide prison services at a lower cost, higher quality, and in a more efficient manner. Sounds good right? On the opposite spectrum, many argue that the mere prospect of making a substantial profit would result in “cutting corners” to save money to maximize the profit made. This corner cutting would in turn affect the overall security and well-being of the inmates being housed at these facilities (Lukemeyer & McCorkle 2006). The lack of empirical research done on cost effectiveness among privatized facilities leads to inconclusive outcomes on whether or not there is a vast difference between the two, economically speaking. In terms of overall quality, living conditions, services provided, and occurrence of violence the empirical research generally gives favorable responses towards the privatized facilities (Lukemeyer & McCorkle 2006).

While the privatization within the criminal justice system is beneficial in some aspects, others warn against the move towards privatization due to lack of accountability. At least with prisons and other facets of the criminal justice system that are funded with the money of tax payers, there is some responsibility to the public interest (Shelden 2008). With private ventures thrown into the mix, seemingly the only priority and responsibility is that of the dollar bill ending up in the right pocket of those who have nothing to lose. Much like the criticism expressed towards the McDonaldization structure implemented in the criminal justice system, if used correctly the results can be beneficial. However if focus of the ultimate purpose is lost, then the only result is injustice and corporate gain.




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Benson, B. L. (1997). To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice. New York: New York University Press.


Bohm, R. (2006). “McJustice: On the McDonaldization of Criminal Justice.” Justice Quarterly, 23: 127-146.


Dyer, J. (2000).  The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.


Gunnison, R. B. (1997). “Privately Run Prison Planned for Mojave: Firm Says It Can House Inmates Cheaper.” San Francisco Chronicle, August 1, A22.


Lukemeyer, A. & McCorkle, R. (2006). Privatization of Prisons: Impact on Prison Conditions. American Review of Public Administration, 36, 189-206.


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Ritzer, G. (2004). The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.


Robinson, M. (2005). Justice Blind?  Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.


Shelden, R. G. (2008) “The Prison Industrial Complex”. University of Nevada-Las Vegas.


__________ (2008). Controlling the Dangerous Classes: A History of Criminal Justice in America. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


Walsh A. & L. Ellis (2007). Criminology: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage


Weiss, R. (1989). “Private Prisons and the State.” In Matthews, R. (Eds.) Privatizing Criminal Justice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


[*] This was a paper written for a graduate class at UNLV called Seminar in the Administration of Justice (spring of 2008).