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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Goldrosen

"Assembly-Line Justice": Washington County, PA


The Washington County Court of Common Pleas in Washington, PA

It was almost 9:30 a.m., and the line into courtroom 2 of the Washington County Court of Common Pleas in Washington, Pennsylvania still stretched to the door. It snaked up the center aisle of the gallery, past the courtroom bar, and up to the assistant district attorney standing at the front of the courtroom. In line were defendants and lawyers, probably at least 60 in number, waiting to check in with the ADA. It was DUI day, otherwise known as Thursday, July 12.

The scene, consisting solely of DUI defendants and their attorneys, called to mind some of the problems with the criminal courts identified by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice “The commission . . . has seen cramped and noisy courtrooms, undignified and perfunctory procedures, and badly trained personnel. It has seen dedicated people who are frustrated by huge caseloads, by the lack of opportunity to examine cases carefully, and by the impossibility of devising constructive solutions to the problems of offenders. It has seen assembly-line justice.” The year this report was written? 1967.

Now, many of the problems the commission identified were not present in this courtroom. The courtroom had enough seating and was climate-controlled well for the hot day. The courtroom personnel did largely seem to know and perform their jobs well. Yet the feeling of “assembly-line justice” still prevailed. This sense began with the clerk’s announcement about courtroom decorum – “If your phone makes any noise, we’ll take you away and you’ll be fined, and held in contempt, which means you’ll go to jail.” No one wants a cellphone ring to disturb court, but something less nail-on-the-head than a threat of jail time might give defendants less of an impression that the court staff are out to get them.

Next, defendants were called up by categories – again, not a bad time-saving strategy for court staff, but also one that contributes to the sense of assembly-line justice. First, all those seeking continuances were called up and quickly granted more time. Then, those first-time offenders eligible for a diversion program – termed the “Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition” program – were called. Thirty or so in number, they formed a semicircle in the courtroom’s well, standing before the judge, John DiSalle.

“I will now explain your legal rights to you as a group,” he intoned. He explained that this program, entry to which was controlled solely by the district attorney’s office, allowed defendants to avoid a conviction and jail time, instead serving a year of probation, paying a fine, and serving a short license suspension. He outlined the rights they forfeited by entering the program, most crucially the right to a trial. The final thing he said to the group, just before he asked them to step back to the gallery, sounded almost like a coach giving his team a pep talk after a tough first half – “This is a break for you all take advantage of – let’s learn from this and not drink and drive again.” (Of course, the large number of repeat DUI offenders later called up makes one wish it was only that simple.)

Each defendant then came up before the judge for a quick colloquy. “Do you understand what you’re charged with?” “Do you waive the right to a trial?” “Are you responsible for happened?” With a few “yes” responses and maybe a word or two about the defendant’s occupation, their case was dealt with and they were accepted into the program. Each appearance took one or two minutes at most. These defendants were receiving a very favorable outcome – diversion from a criminal conviction and all its collateral consequences. Yet the aftertaste of “assembly-line justice” still lingered. The rights of the individual are sacrosanct in the courts and the de-individualized nature of this court proceeding seemed a harbinger, albeit with lower-stakes results for the defendants, of what might occur when justice prioritizes efficiency.

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