The Journey of a Criminal Case through the U.S. Justice System
Criminal justice is essentially a long journey, involving various sets of rules, which govern the proceedings of a criminal case. In the United States of America, the procedure of all criminal proceedings is regulated by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which outline the various procedures involved in conducting the federal criminal trials. On similar lines, different states have their own codes of procedure, of which many model the federal rules.
Making decisions in criminal justice is much more than simply learning the rules and applying them to specific areas. Decisions are usually based on discretion, wherein an individual can exercise his/her judgement with alternative courses of action. Discretion mainly comes into play whenever the police has to make a choice about whether to investigate, arrest, question, search, or use force. Similarly, prosecutors exercise their individual judgement on whether to plea-bargain or charge a person with a crime. Judges can also use their discretion powers when accepting, setting or rejecting plea bargains, sentencing, and ruling on pretrial motions. Parole board members also have the right to decide whether and when to release an inmate from prison.
Stages of a Criminal Case
Criminal prosecution involves a series of the following stages:
- Investigation: Once a crime is committed, the criminal justice process usually starts with a police investigation of the scene of the alleged crime. In case, the police determines that the particular act was not illegal, then that case gets removed from the criminal justice network and does not move to the next stage of arrest. If the preliminary investigation at the crime scene determines it to be a crime, then the patrol officers secure the crime scene in order to protect the identity of the evidence.
- Arrest: Once the suspect is identified by the police, their aim is to arrest the alleged offender. An arrest usually involves taking the suspect into custody and beginning the process of prosecution in the court. An arrest must always be based on a probable cause or a belief that the particular individual has committed a crime.
- Initial Appearance: After being charged with a crime by the prosecution, the suspect needs to make an appearance before the judge. The suspect is then notified of his charges and advised of their rights. The judge also determines whether a bail is required; if not, the suspect is released on the promise that he/she will reappear for the trial.
- Grand Jury/Preliminary Hearing: The criminal justice process may involve either a grand jury or a preliminary hearing, depending on the jurisdiction in which a particular case is being heard. This process usually aims at ensuring that innocent people are not maliciously, hastily, or arbitrarily prosecuted. In most states, preliminary hearing usually determines if there is sufficient evidence to hold the case for the trial. In case, the judge does not find a probable cause, the case might be dismissed and removed from the criminal justice network. In federal cases, a grand jury determines if enough evidence is available to file an indictment charging the suspect. If the grand jury finds sufficient evidence to warrant a trial, it will issue a true bill or else a bail will be issued.
- Arraignment: When the indictment is read to an accused by the judge, he/she can enter a plea of no contest, guilty, or not guilty. Upon no contest or pleading guilty, sentencing can take place immediately with no trials required to determine the guilt.
- Trial: A trial occurs between the prosecutor and defense in order to win and secure their own interests. A trial is always held before a jury and the evidence for a criminal conviction is usually guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Sentencing: When a defendant is found guilty by a bench trial or a jury of their peers, the next step involves the sentencing of the suspect. Judges generally have less discretion in determinate sentences, more discretion within certain guidelines in indeterminate sentences and no discretion in mandatory sentences.
- Appeal: Those convicted of serious crimes have the right to appeal to the court of appeals or the appellate court. The appeal of a convicted offender is generally on the basis of the matter of the law. If the case is reversed by an appellate court, then the case returns to the trial court. In the reversal scenario, the prosecutor then decides whether to drop or refile the charges.
- Punishment: Rehabilitation or punishment is usually administered by the federal, state, or local correctional authorities. Release is obtained by serving the maximum sentence or through an early release mechanism, such as a pardon.
Therefore, the criminal justice process is similar to a funnel (wide at the top and narrow at bottom) as the cases dwindle with the removal of a large number of cases from the criminal justice network.