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U.S. Justice System: The Lifecycle of Criminal Cases

Every criminal case in the United States Judicial System is tried on the principles of justice as outlined by the U.S. Constitution and individual state constitutions and codes. Both judges and juries are empowered to make final decisions (verdicts) in criminal cases. With very few exceptions (typically minor traffic crimes), all defendants are entitled to a trial by jury which they may waive (choose not to do) at any time. Both judges and juries are required to weigh the facts in a criminal case regardless of the defendant’s race, gender, religion, or background.

In the interest of protecting the people and preserving justice, criminal court proceedings are open to the public—anyone can view a trial or other proceeding at any time, including citizens, the media, law enforcement, and the families of people involved in the case. 

U.S. Justice System Criminal Court Divisions

Most states divide their criminal justice systems into municipal courts, superior court, appellate or appeals courts, and the state’s Supreme Court. Each of these operates independently or together, as required by the severity of the crime or if the defendant chooses to appeal (disagrees with) a verdict handed down by a lower court.

What is a criminal case?

When the defendant is charged with a serious crime, also known as a felony, he or she has the basic right of being innocent until proven guilty by the prosecution. This does not mean that the defendant will always be released from custody during the trial; he or she may be remanded (held in jail or prison) and brought to the court each day during the trial.

Some defendants may be released on bail, meaning that they put up money as a guarantee that they will continue to show up for all the trial proceedings. If the defendant does not show up for a trial date, he or she is said to have skipped bail and forfeited all the money—sometimes thousands of dollars.

Each crime has various levels of severity—they may be classified as misdemeanors (less serious) or felonies (more serious). Felonies may include such crimes as theft, drug possession, homicide, rape, or murder. Misdemeanors include traffic crimes, petty theft, disagreements between neighbors or landlords and tenants, and so on. Minor crimes are tried in lower municipal courts. Serious crimes are tried in superior or district court.

Who are the defendant and the prosecution in a criminal case?

The defendant is the person accused of the crime. The prosecutor or the prosecution is a lawyer who is trying to convince the judge or the jury that the defendant actually committed the crime. The prosecutor must present a preponderance of evidence (a large amount) that convinces the judge or the jury that the defendant committed the crime beyond reasonable doubt (there is no question).

What is a hearing for a criminal case?

A hearing is the first step in a criminal trial. The prosecution and the defense present evidence to a judge who decides if there is enough evidence to conduct a full trial. At a hearing, the defendant may ask to be released on bail. For felonies, a verdict is not handed down during the initial hearing unless the defendant pleads guilty; the prosecution and the defense must go to trial and present much more evidence to the judge or the jury in order to get a verdict. However, the defendant may present a plea bargain at a hearing, in which case the judge may accept or reject the plea.

An indictment is another word for naming the felony which has been committed so the case may proceed to trial. The defendant is indicted at a hearing, meaning that the type of crime committed and the level of seriousness are outlined before the case proceeds through the court system. The defendant may not be charged with a more serious crime at a later date in the trial, so a proper indictment is important so that justice may be served.

What is a plea bargain in a criminal case?

Sometimes the defendant’s lawyers choose to present an alternative deal to the prosecutor and the judge in order to avoid a trial. This is called a plea bargain. The defendant offers to plead guilty to a lesser crime and receives punishment for that crime, rather than the more severe felony he or she may have been charged with initially.

A plea bargain ensures that the defendant is punished with at least some prison time, but the judge can reject a plea bargain. If the prosecutor and the judge accept the plea bargain, the defendant is automatically found guilty and goes to prison to serve the sentence the judge hands down.

How does Municipal Court work in criminal cases?

Municipal courts, also known as city courts, hear and decide on a vast majority of cases. These always involve misdemeanors or minor infractions of the law. They may hear a serious felony case initially but the municipal courts will quickly pass serious crimes on to the superior court or district court.

How does District or Superior Court work in criminal cases?

Serious crimes and felonies are tried in superior or district court. This is a higher court in the state and it hears and hands down verdicts for serious crimes only. These are sometimes called trial courts because they may involve a judge and a jury, or only a judge if the defendant gives up the right to a jury trial.

What do Superior Court judges and juries do during a criminal trial?

A judge presides over every trial, but a jury may be involved in deciding the criminal case. A jury is 12 people from the community where the trial is being held. They listen to the evidence and the testimony of witnesses and discuss it among themselves. They must all agree that the defendant committed the crime beyond reasonable doubt, or they must all agree that the defendant did not commit the crime. This is called the verdict (the final decision). If they do not agree, the judge declares a mistrial and the prosecutor must start over with new evidence.

If a jury hands down a guilty verdict, the judge decides on the punishment for the defendant (sentencing).  Punishments may include time in prison. State laws serve as guidelines for how little or how much prison time a guilty defendant may serve, but the judge is also allowed to use his or her good sense when sentencing a convicted criminal.

How does Appellate Court work in criminal cases?

Appellate court is a court of review. A small panel of judges looks at the facts of a case and the lawyers involved make their arguments to the panel. The appellate court does not hear new evidence, but decides on the basis of what was presented in the superior court whether or not the jury made the right decision.

How does the Court of Appeals work in a criminal case?

If the defendant disagrees with a sentence handed down by a judge or jury in a lower court he or she may appeal that decision to a higher court. In these cases, the higher court reviews all the information that was presented at the first trial, asks to hear witnesses or testimony if needed, and decides whether or not the lower court made the right decision.

The convicted defendant has the right to appeal a number of times, meaning that various higher courts could look at the evidence and change the verdict. The convicted defendant may appeal for complete overturn of the guilty verdict, or may appeal for a lighter sentence (less prison time).

Levels of Punishment in Criminal Convictions

There are various levels of punishment which the judge may sentence a guilty defendant to, based on state guidelines and the severity of the crime. These usually include a prison sentence at one of the state’s prisons. 

How do jails work in a criminal case?

Jails are local places where most misdemeanor offenders are held to serve out their sentences. They have lower levels of security than prisons, and often defendants will be released during the day so they can go to work. People who are indicted with felony crimes may be held in jail while their trials are going on, but if they are convicted of a felony they will go to prison rather than to jail. 

How do Federal and state prisons work in a criminal case?

Convicted felons are sent either to state prison or to federal prison to serve their sentences.  These prisons have higher security than jails. There are several levels of prisons, from minimum security to maximum security. Minimum security prisons house inmates who are less dangerous or who have committed less severe felonies. Maximum security prisons house the very worst offenders or those who repeatedly offend. They may include solitary confinement. The most secure prisons house those who have been sentenced to life in prison or to death.

How does parole work in a criminal case?

After a convicted felon has served the minimum number of years in prison, he or she may be eligible for parole. This means that a panel of people looks at the crime committed and the person’s behavior while in prison and may decide to release the prisoner. After release, the person must keep in close contact with a parole officer and follow very strict rules of conduct otherwise they may be remanded to prison again to serve the rest of their sentence.


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