How Does the Criminal Justice System Work?

Miranda rights are the familiar refrain of police dramas. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you." Police officers are required to remind arrestees of these rights before they are questioned.

The criminal justice system consists of three major institutions:

  • Law enforcement
  • The judicial court system
  • The corrections system

The criminal justice process begins with law enforcement. First, agency officials will investigate a crime and gather sufficient evidence to identify and support criminal charges against a suspect. The case continues with criminal proceedings via the court system. This is when a judge weighs the evidence in a bench trial, or the jury weighs the evidence in a jury trial. To render a guilty verdict, the judge or the jury must find that there is enough evidence to show that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Depending on the seriousness of the crime(s), the judge will then hand down a prison sentence or other penalty during a sentencing hearing. The corrections system will then enforce this sentence to punish and correct the behavior of the defendant.

Throughout each stage of the criminal process, protections exist to ensure that the constitutional rights of the accused and convicted are respected. These protections balance the power of the criminal justice system with the rights of criminal defendants.

Law Enforcement

There are many constitutional rights that protect the accused from abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers. The most important of these rights are the Fifth Amendment Miranda rights and the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The other major restriction on the investigative stage of a case is the prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. This prevents officers from searching a suspect or their home, car, or cell phone, without a search warrant. There are exceptions to this rule, such as when an officer is in "hot pursuit" of a suspect.

Lastly, the Fourth Amendment also protects against arbitrary arrests, meaning police officers need an arrest warrant to arrest a suspect. To obtain an arrest warrant, officers must present enough evidence to the judge. The judge has the authority to issue a warrant for a suspect's arrest. However, warrantless arrests are valid in some instances. For example, a warrantless arrest is valid if a suspect commits an offense in the presence of a police officer or the officer has probable cause to believe that a suspect committed a felony, not a misdemeanor.

The Judicial Court System

Much like the law enforcement stage of a case, a criminal defendant is afforded several rights throughout a criminal court proceeding. These include the right to confront one's accusers, the right against incriminating oneself, the right to counsel, and the right to a jury trial. The defendant has a right to be represented by either an attorney of their choosing or, if they cannot afford one, court-appointed counsel. The primary purpose of all these protections is to ensure a fair trial for the accused.

For most felony cases, if the district attorney/prosecutor decides to file charges, they will either request a grand jury indictment or a preliminary hearing. A grand jury indictment is a private proceeding during which a grand jury determines whether there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges to trial. A preliminary hearing is open to the public, during which the prosecutor must prove to the judge that there is enough evidence against the defendant to proceed with the trial.

After the grand jury indictment or preliminary hearing, the next step is the arraignment. The arraignment is usually the defendant's first court appearance. At the arraignment, the judge informs the defendant of the charges they are facing and asks how they will plead. The defendant will then be asked to enter a plea, such as guilty, not guilty, or no contest. If the defendant's attorney has already negotiated with the prosecutor for a plea bargain, the defendant may enter a guilty plea at the arraignment as part of the plea agreement. If a plea is accepted, there will be no trial, and the defendant will be sentenced at this proceeding or at a later date.

Before the trial begins, both parties have the opportunity to file pre-trial motions, which include motions like a motion to dismiss or a motion for a change of venue. If the defendant believes the police did not follow the proper procedures regarding evidence in the case, the defendant may file a motion to suppress.

Then comes jury selection. Jury selection must result in a fair cross-section of the community. In most cases, this will not lead to a jury composed of a single race or gender. The process for selecting potential jurors is called voir dire.

Once a jury is selected, the actual trial begins. At the beginning of trial, both the prosecutor and the defendant's attorney will present their opening statements to the judge and the jury. Both sides will present evidence and witnesses, which are subject to cross-examination.

After the prosecution and the defense present their closing arguments, jury deliberations will begin. The jury will return a verdict of guilty or not guilty. If the jury determines that the defendant is guilty, the judge will then hand down a sentence according to the sentencing guidelines of the crime. A not-guilty verdict will result in an acquittal, and the charges will be dropped against the defendant.

The Corrections System

If the defendant is convicted and the charges merit jail time, the defendant will be sent to the corrections system for punishment. Typically, this involves probation, incarceration, or both. Probation can be either supervised or unsupervised. Supervised probation requires the offender to check in regularly with a probation officer to ensure compliance with the terms of their probation. Unsupervised probation means that a person only faces jail time or other punishment if they run further afoul of the law.

Incarceration is also a common outcome of criminal trials, especially in more serious cases. The convict is housed in either jail or prison. Jails are usually located in each county. They are for less serious offenses. Jail terms usually do not exceed one year. Prison terms, on the other hand, are usually for longer than a year and almost always involve serious felony offenses.

The primary constraint on abuses in the correctional system is the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. Though violations do occur, they usually will not result in a suspension of one's sentence. Rather, the remedy is typically injunctive relief or monetary damages obtained via a civil rights lawsuit.

Have Specific Questions About the Criminal Justice System? Ask an Attorney

If you've been arrested, are awaiting arraignment, or have a trial date coming up, it isn't too late to access legal assistance. Knowledge is power, and your ability to take charge of your situation depends on a clear understanding of the case against you. The stakes are often quite high in criminal cases. A guilty verdict will not only result in a prison sentence or fine but can tarnish your future success. Find a criminal defense attorney near you today.

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