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Your Chicago Criminal Case: The Basics

There you are, a few blocks from Wrigley, having a few drinks after a Cubs game. Despite going over a hundred years without a World Series title, it's a pleasant place to be, until some joker from St. Louis walks in. One thing leads to another, and now one of Chicago's finest is reading you your rights. It could happen to anybody.

You don't have to be Al Capone to need information on the Illinois criminal justice system. FindLaw presents this article to help you focus on what's most important: putting a bad incident behind you, and getting back to pleasant life here in the Windy City.

Arrest Without a Warrant

For many people, a warrantless arrest is their beginning point in a criminal case. Here in the Second City, police take arrestees to the designated holding facility. In most cases, the holding facility will be in the police district in which the arrest occurred. See part III of the Chicago Police Department's General Order regarding Field Arrest Procedures.

Bond Hearing

Arrestees will be interviewed by either a lawyer from the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender or an employee from Court's Adult Probation Department. The interviewer will be seeking information to help the court set an appropriate bond amount, if any. The judge will then: (1) set the bond; (2) inform a defendant of the probable charges; and (3) notify the defendant of his/her right to counsel-including public defender services. The court will also schedule the defendant's next court appearance.

After a Bond Hearing, defendants awaiting trial are housed in the Cook County Department of Corrections. The Department maintains a webpage with information on bonding. In summary, loved-ones may secure an inmate's release with cash, credit card, or certified check. The process takes roughly two hours, but sometimes longer.

Two Categories of Crimes

Criminal offenses in Illinois are either felonies or misdemeanors. Under state law, felonies are offenses that are punishable by more than a year in the penitentiary or by death. Misdemeanors, on the other hand, are punishable by less than a year in a non-penitentiary, such as a county facility or on home arrest. The way a criminal case develops is determined, in part, by whether the state charges a defendant with a felony or misdemeanor crime. See pages 2 and 3 of the Policies and Procedures of the Illinois Criminal Justice System for a pair of charts describing the overall procedure and differences between felonies and misdemeanors.

Preliminary Hearing and Grand Jury

If the state retains custody of a suspect, it has 30 days to conduct a preliminary hearing. The state has 60 days if the suspect has been released. In felony cases, the prosecution may instead proceed with a grand jury and indictment. In any event, the state must explain why it has probable cause to believe that the defendant committed the crime in question. The defendant does not have to be present for these proceedings.


The next mandatory court date is the arraignment. This is where the court reads the official charges, and the defendant must plea either: (1) guilty; (2) not guilty; or (3) guilty but mentally ill. If you are arraigned, you have the right to have your attorney present. The court has a limited ability to postpone an arraignment so that you can have one by your side.

Working with Your Attorney

It's important to be open and honest with your attorney. Generally, a lawyer cannot talk publicly about a client unless the lawyer either (1) has permission or (2) is trying to prevent future crimes and frauds. This means that you can talk to your lawyer without fearing that he/she will expose your secrets.

You should also keep the attorney's legal advice to yourself as much as possible. If you wind up testifying, your communications with your lawyer can't be used in court so long as they include legal advice, and the content has remained confidential. If you relay what your attorney tells you to a third person, your attorney's comments might be fair game in court.


If you plead not guilty, your case will move along towards trial. Between arraignment and trial, your attorney and the prosecutor will settle matters relating to how the court will receive evidence, and how the trial will proceed. The attorneys will likely also negotiate plea deals.

As part of the pre-trial negotiations, the parties may agree to have the defendant proceed in one of Chicago's specialty or treatment courts and avoid trial. The Cook County Circuit court has brochures describing some of the available programs.

Several cases in Illinois have centered on a defendant's right to a speedy trial. In any case, the state generally must try the case within 160 days of arrest. If the state fails to do so, the court must dismiss the charges.


Every criminal defendant in the state is entitled to a jury trial with a twelve-member jury. If the defendant chooses, he may waive this right and have his case decided by a judge. Talk to your attorney about whether this is a good strategy in your case. If you proceed with a jury trial, all twelve members must find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict you of a crime.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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