This article is an overview of the Criminal Justice process and is useful as a road map of the criminal justice system itself.

Investigation and Arrest

The modern criminal justice process begins with investigation. When a crime has been committed, it is often discovered and reported to the police. Sometimes a police officer on routine patrol discovers the crime while it is still in progress. Evidence will be gathered on the scene when possible, and a follow-up investigation will attempt to reconstruct the likely sequence of activities. Some offenders are arrested at the scene of the crime, while some are apprehended only after an extensive investigation. In such cases, arrest warrents issued by the court provide the legal basis for an apprehension by police.

An arrest involves taking a person into custody and limits their freedom. Arrest is a serious step in the process of justice and involves a discretionary decision made by the police seeking to bring criminal sanctions to bear. Most arrests are made peacefully, but some involve force when the suspect tries to resist. During an arrest and prior to questioning defendants are usually advised of their constitutional rights, known as Miranda Rights. It should be noted that although popular television shows almost always show a rights advisement at the time of arrest, the Miranda decision only requires police personnel to advise a person of his or her rights prior to questioning. An arrest without quesitoning can occur in the absence of any warning.


During the arrest process suspects are booked: pictures are taken, fingerprints are made, and personal information, such as address, date of birth, weight and height, are gathered. Details of the charges are recored, and an administrative record of the arrest is created. During booking suspects are again advised of their rights, and asked to sign a form on which each right is written. The written form generally contains a statement acknowledging the rights advisement and attesting to the fact that the suspect understands them.

First Appearance

Within hours of arrest suspects must be brought before a judge for a first appearance. The judge will tell them of the charges against them, will again advise them of their rights, and may sometimes provide the opportunity for bail. Most defendants are released on recognizance (into their own care or the care of another) or given the chance to post bond during their first appearance. A bond may take the form of a cash deposit or a property bond in which a house or other property can serve as collateral against flight. Suspects who either are not afforded the opportunity for bail because their crimes are very serious, or who do not have the needed financial resources, are taken to jail to await the next stage in the criminal justice process.

If a defendant does not have a lawyer, on will be appointed at the first appearance. The defendant may eventually have to demonstrate financial hardship or be ordered to pay for counsel.

Preliminary Hearing

The primary purpose of a preliminary hearing is to determine whether or not sufficient evidence exists against a person to continue the criminal justice process. The decision is a judicial one, but the process provides the prosecutor with an opportunity to test the strength of evidence at his or her disposal. In a preliminary hearing the judge will decide if a crime has indeed been committed, and if it is likely that the person before the court is the one who has committed it. The preliminary hearing also allows defense counsel the chance to assess the strength of the prosecution's case. As the prosecution presents evidence, the defense is said to "discover," what it is. Hence, the preliminary hearing serves a discovery function for the defense. If the defense thinks the evidence is strong, he or she may suggest that a plea bargain be arranged.

Information or Indictment

In some states the prosecutor may seek to continue the case against a defendant by filing an "information" with the court. An information is filed on the basis of the outcome of the preliminary hearing.

Other states require an indictment be returned by a grand jury before the prosecution can proceed. The grand jury hears evidence form the prosecutor and decides whether a case should go to trial. In effect, the grand jury is the formal indicting authority. It determines whether or not probable cause exists to charge a defendant formally with a crime. Grand juries can return an indictment on less than unanimous vote.


At arraignment the accused stands before a judge and hears the information or indictment against him or her as it is read. Defendants will again be notified of their rights and will be asked to enter a plea. Acceptable pleas generally include, 1. "Not Guilty"; 2. "Guilty"; and 3. "No Contest", which may result in a conviction, but which can't be used later as an admission of guilt in civil proceedings.

Guilty pleas are not always accepted by the judge. If the judge feels a guilty plea was made under duress, or because of lack of knowledge on the part of the defendant, the plea will be rejected and a plea of "not guilty," will be substituted for it.


In most jurisdictions, many criminal cases never come to trial. The majority are "plead out," or dismissed for a variety of reasons. Some studies have found that as many as 82% of all sentences are imposed in criminal cases because of guilty pleas rather than trials. In cases which do go to trial the procedures which govern the submission of evidence are tightly controlled by procedural law and precedent. Procedural law specified what type of evidence may be submitted, what the credentials of those allowed to represent the state or the defendant, must be, and what a jury is allowed to hear.

Some states allow trials for less serous offenses to occur before a judge if defendants waive their right to a trial by jury. This is called a bench trial. Other states require a jury trial for all serous criminal offenses. In some cases a jury may be unable to decide, in such cases it is said to be deadlocked, resulting in a mistrial being declared. The defendant will be tried again when a new jury is picked.


Once a person is convicted it becomes the responsibility of the judge to impose some form of punishment. The sentence may take the form of supervised probation in the community, a fine, a prison term, or some combination of these. Defendants will often be ordered to pay the cost of court or of their own defense if they are able.

Prior to sentencing, a sentencing hearing may be held in which lawyers on both sides present information concerning the defendant. The judge may also request that a pre-sentencing report be compiled by a probation or parole officer. The report will contain information about the defendant's family and business situation, emotional state, social background, and criminal history. It will be used to assist the judge in making an appropriate sentencing decision.


Once an offender has been sentenced, the stage of "corrections" begins. Some offenders are sentenced to prison where they "do time for their crimes." Once in the correctional system, they are classified according to local procedures and assigned to confinement facilities and treatment programs.

Probation and Parole

Not everyone who is convicted of a crime and sentenced ends up in prison. Some offenders are ordered to prison only to have their sentences suspended and a probationary term imposed. They may also be ordered to perform community service activities as a condition of their probations. During the term of probation these offenders are required to submit to supervision by a probation officer and to meet other conditions set by the court. Failure to do so results in revocation of probation and imposition of the original prison sentence. Other offenders, who have served a portion of their prison sentence may be freed on parole. They will be supervised by a parole officer and assisted in their readjustment to society.

There you have it. A break down of the Criminal Justice process and how each part of the process works.