The criminal justice system contains two sub-fields: law enforcement and legal services, which the U.S. court system brings together. Law enforcement officers apprehend criminal suspects, while legal professionals adjudicate in court according to the U.S. Constitution and individual state constitutions.
Criminal justice legal professionals should expect rewarding, interesting work that moves at a fast pace.
The criminal court system divides into federal and state branches. Federal cases cover crimes against the U.S. government, along with kidnapping and transporting goods across state lines. State courts, on the other hand, handle most criminal matters.
The typical state court process includes an arraignment, in which the judge reads the charges and the suspect pleads guilty or not guilty. The judge then either dismisses the case for insufficient evidence or continues to trial if enough evidence exists.
If the case goes to trial, the attorneys may reach a plea bargain before the judge rules, whereby the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge to resolve the case and receive a shorter sentence. Otherwise, the court proceeds with a jury trial or a bench trial with the judge only.
Is a Legal Career Right for You?
Legal professionals can pursue careers as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, paralegals, and court reporters. They must pay attention to details, concentrate for extended periods of time, listen and read carefully, and write clearly. Judges and lawyers also need critical-thinking and decision-making skills, and attorneys and paralegals should possess high-level research and computer skills.
Criminal justice legal professionals should expect rewarding, interesting work that moves at a fast pace. Judges and private defense attorneys make high salaries, while prosecutors earn government pay and benefits.
Aspiring judges and lawyers should note that law school is arduous and expensive, and criminal law careers often entail long hours and extended periods of stress. Paralegals and court reporters earn lower salaries than attorneys and judges, but they still face tight deadlines and heavy workloads.
Understanding the U.S. Criminal Court System
The following section breaks down and examines the various levels of criminal courts, including state and federal systems and lower, appellate, and supreme court functions.
State Court System
As mentioned above, federal courts hear federal and cross-jurisdictional matters, and state courts address all crimes that occur within their borders. Consequently, state courts deal with most criminal cases, including theft and burglary, crimes against persons and property, fraud and forgery, drug possession and driving under the influence, and computer crimes, such as cyberbullying.
Most state judges obtain their positions via elections. They preside over trial or lower courts, courts of appeals, or state supreme courts. Some receive appointments from government officials.
Cases begin in the lower or trial courts. Some states separate criminal matters from civil cases, but most judges hear both. State trial courts often encompass general jurisdiction courts, which hear all kinds of matters, and courts of limited jurisdiction, which only handle certain proceedings, such as arraignments or misdemeanors. Lower courts' names may vary by state.
Convicted criminal defendants may choose to take their cases to the next level -- the court of appeals, which consists of a panel of judges who review the trial courts' decisions. Defendants who lose in appellate court may ask the state's court of last resort (commonly called the supreme court) or, in rare circumstances, the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case.
General jurisdiction trial courts hear criminal matters in every state, but the court names vary. Florida calls them circuit courts, New York refers to them as supreme courts, and Nevada calls them district courts, but most other states conduct trials in superior courts. Courts of limited jurisdiction, often called district courts, hear only certain cases, such as those for misdemeanors. What constitutes a misdemeanor also varies by state.
Courts of general jurisdiction handle all types of criminal matters, including serious felonies like murder, rape, and armed robbery, and lesser crimes, such as minor assault, trespassing, and shoplifting. The state trial court hears any crime that takes place at the state level.
Juvenile courts deal with crimes committed by minors. Juveniles who commit serious crimes may appear before a judge in a court of general jurisdiction. This judge determines if the defendants should stand trial as adults.
All states handle appeals from trial courts in some kind of intermediate or appellate court system. In most states, the appellate court constitutes the middle position of three tiers: above the trial court, but below the court of last resort. Some states separate criminal appeals from civil appeals.
Appellate court panels review trial court judges' opinions and jury verdicts. In most cases, the appeals court does not constitute a formal proceeding, but a panel of judges or justices who convene to address a petition for review. This panel decides whether to affirm the case, reverse it, or remand it back to the trial court for reconsideration.
The panels may use a standard of review, such as an "abuse of discretion," where a trial judge's rulings are reviewed, or de novo, where the panel looks at the case as if for the first time, with no deference to the trial court's decision.
State Supreme Courts
The court of last resort -- most commonly called the state supreme court -- usually constitutes the last stop on a criminal case's journey. Most state supreme courts reside in the state's capital city. The capital cities of Oklahoma City and Austin, Texas each house two supreme courts: the state supreme court and the Court of Criminal Appeals.
This court also consists of a panel of judges who make determinations regarding legal issues, but who rarely consider facts. If facts come into play and the trial court made an egregious error, the supreme court sends the case back to the lower court for a new trial. The state supreme courts' decisions are final and binding on matters of state law, even in federal court. Instances where a case might proceed to the U.S. Supreme Court may include U.S. Constitutional law questions, issues arising in federal law, and crimes across state lines.
Federal Court System
Federal criminal cases start with the U.S. Attorney's office, which coordinates with federal law enforcement to prosecute on behalf of the government. The burden of proof in a criminal trial lies with the government, which must prove the defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Case removal from state court to federal court occurs if the case involves federal questions or crimes on federal property. Some crimes violate state and federal law and span both jurisdictions. In some instances, out-of-state defendants opt for federal court if they cannot receive a bias-free trial in state court.
Federal judges receive nominations from the president and confirmation by the Senate. They typically stay in office for life.
Cases begin at the federal district or trial court level. Each state and Washington, D.C. house at least one U.S. District Court, as do the territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The justices at the U.S. Courts of Appeals hear cases at one court in each of the 12 regional circuits, along with the District of Columbia Circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court tops the federal hierarchy. Located in Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court's nine justices make the final decisions.
Each district employs its own U.S. Attorney, who acts as the prosecutor of federal crimes. Crimes heard in federal district court include attempted or completed assasination of the president or vice president, aircraft hijacking, credit card fraud, election fraud, federal hate crimes, kidnapping, mail fraud, racketeering, and tax evasion.
The district courts function as the federal trial courts; however, only the U.S. government can initiate criminal proceedings. The U.S. Attorney presents evidence to the grand jury, which reviews the evidence and decides if the matter should go to trial. As in state court, plea-bargain negotiations often ensue, and a significant number of defendants plead guilty to avoid trial and receive more lenient sentencing.
Courts of Appeals
The Courts of Appeals' justices review decisions from the U.S. District Courts to ensure defendants received fair trials with correct application of the law and the Constitution. They do not allow new evidence or conduct re-trials, nor do they hear testimony. The government cannot appeal a conviction in a criminal case -- only the defendant can -- but either side can appeal a sentence following a guilty verdict.
The defendants' attorneys prepare written briefs for the court and argue their cases before the appellate panel of three justices. All cases resulting in the death penalty are automatically appealed, and prisoners claiming unlawful detention may appeal their sentences on grounds of civil rights or constitutional violations. Even those confined in state prisons may petition for federal review of their sentences once they exhaust their state-court remedies.
The U.S. Supreme Court hears cases involving ambassadors and disputes between states, along with appeals of federal court decisions and state court decisions containing federal law questions. The Supreme Court may also invalidate unlawful executive actions and statutes violating the Constitution.
The court consists of the Chief Justice and eight justices, who decide cases by majority vote. To initiate a case, the parties submit petitions for writs of certiorari, and justices vote on whether to review each case. If accepted, the parties file briefs and go to court. Justices ask attorneys questions during oral arguments, then convene to vote on their decision and issue the court's draft opinion. Justices may also prepare concurring or dissenting opinions, which the court reviews before announcing its final judgment.
The Supreme Court employs law clerks to assist the justices. These clerks review petitions, conduct research, and draft opinions and memoranda.
Judicial Process Overview
The criminal judicial process begins with the law enforcement officers who arrested the suspect, and involves collected evidence, investigation of the crime, and presenting the facts of the case to the prosecutor. If enough evidence exists, the prosecutor files the case with the court.
At the first hearing, called an arraignment, the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty to the charges. The judge sets the schedule of proceedings and decides whether to grant bail; if not, the defendant remains in custody until trial. If the defendant pleads guilty to avoid trial and receive a lesser sentence, known as a plea bargain, the case ends with a sentencing hearing.
Next, a preliminary or grand jury hearing determines if probable cause and sufficient evidence exist, required for the case to proceed to trial. Federal cases must go to a grand jury. Grand juries consist of 16-23 impartial citizens, who evaluate the prosecutor's evidence and testimony and vote on whether to indict the defendant.
State cases may use the grand jury process or a preliminary hearing. At a preliminary hearing, both parties make arguments to the judge, who decides if the case should move forward. If the case goes to trial, the parties engage in discovery, which includes witness interviews and evidence sharing between parties. The prosecutor and defense attorney may also file pre-trial motions at this time, including motions to dismiss the case, suppress evidence, or change the trial venue.
If the trial includes a jury, the attorneys empanel 12 jurors. The attorneys deliver their opening statements and begin witness examinations. The government prosecutor presents their case first, followed by the defense. Each side cross-examines the other side's witnesses. Once the defense rests, both sides present their closing arguments, and the jury or judge deliberates the case. When the jury or judge reaches a decision, the judge reads the verdict. A not-guilty verdict ends the case.
3. Post-trial and sentencing
Following a guilty verdict, the judge orders sentencing pursuant to set guidelines. The defendant may pay a fine or restitution, go to prison, or -- if found guilty of murder, treason, or another capital offense in a death penalty state -- head to death row.
Sometimes, the parties file post-trial motions, such as a motion for a new trial. The defendant may opt to appeal their conviction or either party might appeal the sentence.