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What is Summary Justice?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 16, 2024
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Summary justice is a system in criminal law that punishes offenders in a speedy, informal manner without a court hearing or jury trial. Vigilantism is often referred to as summary justice, as well as lynching, the formation of a posse, and assassinations. Some countries use a form of summary justice to mete out punishment for minor crimes to address backlogged court calendars and save money. In these regions, the appropriate punishment is often decided by police officials and prosecutors.

In some areas where this system is used, it came about from a public perception that the criminal justice system was not working. Citizens who became discontent with the length of time required for the legal system to punish offenders sometimes rebelled, choosing to personally punish the criminal swiftly. This led to the formation of mobs and death squads that ignored the rights of the defendant and decided his or her guilt.

Sweden has used a form of summary justice since 1948, and other European countries also employ this method of handling minor cases. Typically, the offender admits to the crime, and the punishment is decided without a court appearance. In the United States, drug diversion programs that allow an offender to avoid a criminal record by seeking substance abuse treatment is a form of summary justice.

When the offender admits to committing a crime, several options are available as a quick resolution to the case. A warning can be issued or a fine imposed. Sometimes restitution is ordered in cases of theft or vandalism where a victim has suffered financially. Community service work may also be assigned. This process is routinely practiced in cases of vandalism, petty theft, and disorderly conduct.

The practice is not without controversy. Statistics from some countries show a substantial increase in the number of warnings given to lawbreakers. Some people claim this increases crimes such as shoplifting because no sanctions are likely. Opponents also argue there are no adequate safeguards or oversight of the police and prosecutors who decide the appropriate sanction.

Detractors of summary justice claim a defendant could be pressured into admitting culpability to avoid a trial where stiffer penalties might occur. Concern is also raised about improper use of summary justice as a revenue-producing tactic by police in financially strapped regions. When a case is decided outside a courtroom, there is no opportunity for public scrutiny of the criminal justice system, some reports note.

Advantages of the system include clearing courts for more serious or violent offenders who require incarceration to protect the public. It also safeguards minors from incurring criminal records by allowing them to atone for illegal acts informally. Essentially, the summary justice system attempts to balance the need to address serious crime through the courts while resolving minor cases rapidly.

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