The criminal justice system relies on your assistance to help identify and convict the suspect. The detective conducts the police investigation. The Prosecutor represents the State against the Defendant (person charged with a crime). The defense attorney and his/her investigator represent the defendant.
If a suspect/defendant is in custody it is important to know that you may not be contacted in the event that he/she is released. The prosecutor will make every effort to keep you informed, but ultimately it is your responsibility to contact the jail to verify the custody status of the defendant.
The following are some terms that are commonly used in the Criminal Justice System:
- Case brought from a lower to a higher court for rehearing. Must be based on legal error made during the initial trial. Arraignment - A court hearing in which a person is informed officially of the charges against him/her. He/She is told of their right to have a lawyer and a trial. Next court date is set.
- Security, usually money and/or property, which releases a suspect or defendant from jail while securing their appearance at subsequent hearings or trial.
- The court hearing in which a case can be set for trial or the defendant can plead guilty or the case may be continued at this hearing. (Delays are very common at this stage).
- A formal accusation of guilt against a person who is believed to have committed a crime.
- A postponement in the case proceedings.
Competency Hearing - A court proceeding that evaluated either a child's ability to remember the incident, and to know the difference between the truth and a lie; or an adult defendant's ability to assist in their defense.
Criminal Motions - One or more hearings in which legal issues, such as the admissibility of evidence, are discussed.
Defendant - A person accused of a crime and charged by the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney.
Impact Statement - A letter presented to the Judge at sentencing which outlines the victim's feelings about the crime, how it has impacted them and what type of sentence they feel the defendant should receive.
Investigator - A person who works for the defense attorney and is responsible for gathering information and talking to witnesses.
Jury - A panel of 12 citizens who will evaluate the evidence presented at trial and try to reach a unanimous decision.
No Contact Order - An order by the court requiring that there is no contact by the defendant with the victim/witness, direct or indirect, either in person, by mail or by telephone.
Personal Recognizance - Release of suspect or defendant without payment of bail.
Restitution - Financial compensation which the judge orders the convicted defendant to pay to the victim for losses incurred from the crime.
Speedy Trial - The defendant's constitutional right to be brought to trial within 60 days of the arraignment if in custody, and 90 days if out of custody. Continuances that occur at the defendant's request extend this beyond 60/90 days.
Statements - A written, typed or signed account of a crime as given by a victim or a witness.
Subpoena - A legal document ordering attendance in court. It lists a name and a telephone number to call for more information about time and location. Failure to appear can result in legal action.
Suspect - A person who is believed to have committed a crime.
Waive - To give up voluntarily a legal right or claim.
After charges are filed, there may be several pre-trial hearings. Prior to trial, a defense attorney interview is usually scheduled. You have the right to have the prosecuting attorney and your advocate present. If you are contacted by the defense attorney (or an investigator), you can refer them to the prosecutor's office. You do not have to talk with the defense attorney/investigator by yourself if you are uncomfortable with that.
Trials are assigned as courtrooms become available, making it difficult to know the exact time when the trial will begin. The defendant, with the advice of defense counsel, will decide whether a jury should hear the evidence and return a verdict, or if a judge should hear the case alone, and then make a decision. Jury selection often takes some time. Testimony begins after the jury is selected.
Sometimes a trial will last longer than expected. The Prosecuting Attorney's Office will make every effort to keep you from having to wait or make extra trips to the courthouse, however, some delay is inevitable. The law states that each witness may give testimony only to facts within his or her knowledge. Thus, witnesses are normally asked to remain outside the courtroom until they have testified.
Sentencing occurs after a guilty plea is entered or the defendant is found guilty at trial. A judge determines what the sentence will be, based upon the seriousness of the crime and the defendant's prior criminal history. These two factors determine a sentencing range, within which the judge will decide what the term of confinement will be The law allows the judge to impose an exceptional sentence, above or below the sentencing range, in certain unusual cases. Exceptional sentences may be appealed by either the defendant or the prosecution.
Though the judge has only limited discretion in deciding the length of the sentence, they will consider information from a number of different sources in exercising that discretion. This may include reports from both Prosecutor and Defense Attorney, the Department of Corrections (all making recommendations to the Judge), and the victim(s). Citizens from both sides may write letters as well as speak to the Judge at Sentencing.
The Criminal Justice System can be confusing and overwhelming. The advocate assigned to your case is there to help you understand and maneuver through the process. If you have any concerns at all, please share them with your advocate and the prosecuting attorney.