The Efficiency Mindset and Mass Incarceration

26 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2022

See all articles by Thea Johnson

Thea Johnson

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - Rutgers Law School

Date Written: October 19, 2022


Efficiency often carries a positive connotation. To be efficient, especially in a job, is to get things done quickly and with little wasted effort. As such, it makes sense that lawyers and judges see efficiency, especially in the form of plea bargaining, as a normative good, particularly since it can be used in individual cases to achieve fair results in an often unfair system. But this view of efficiency masks the darker side of the efficient administration of justice, which has contributed to some of the underlying causes of mass incarceration.

To combat mass incarceration, reformers must think seriously about how to break lawyers and judges of their efficiency mindset. Legal culture change in criminal courts is unlikely to be driven by legislation, court action, or lawyers and judges themselves. Instead, this Essay suggests other sources of power that may break the efficiency mindset. By examining these sources of power—both inside and outside of the legal culture—the Essay hopes to offer some ideas for how legal actors might start to, or be forced to, re-envision their role in mass incarceration.

Keywords: plea bargaining, criminal procedure, criminal law, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, legal culture, legal norms, efficiency, decision-making

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Thea, The Efficiency Mindset and Mass Incarceration (October 19, 2022). Forthcoming, Oklahoma Law Review, 2022, Available at SSRN: or

Thea Johnson (Contact Author)

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - Rutgers Law School ( email )

217 N. Fifth Street
Camden, NJ 08102
United States

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