The criminal justice system is designed to punish those who violate laws and deter the overall presence of crime. The criminal justice system varies by location, and crimes generally fall within the state or federal justice system. In Pennsylvania, as in most states, prosecution of criminals is the responsibility of law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office.
Who is Involved?
The criminal justice system generally has five key players.
- Law Enforcement: These are the officers that take reports for local crimes. They investigate and gather evidence. They may also arrest offenders and may be called upon to give testimony.
- Prosecution: Prosecutors, often titled as the District Attorney or United States Attorney, are lawyers who represent the state or federal government throughout the court process. Law enforcement brings evidence to the prosecutor, and the prosecutor may decide whether or not to file charges. It is the job of the prosecutor to present evidence in court, question witnesses, and decide whether to negotiate plea bargains with defendants.
- Defense Attorneys: These attorneys defend the accused against the government. They may be assigned by the court or hired by the defendant.
- Judges: Judges run courts and make sure that the law is properly applied. They decide whether to release offenders on bail before the trial. In addition, judges oversee trials, accept or reject plea agreements, and sentence convicted offenders.
- Corrections: Once an offender is convicted, they may be supervised by a correctional officer in jail, prison, or while on probation or parole. They are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day custody of inmates.
How are Criminal Cases Resolved?
Criminal cases are resolved in one of two ways—through a plea bargain or through a trial. If a defendant accepts a plea bargain or is found guilty in a trial, he or she will be sentenced. While the judge will deliver sentencing, the victim is also an important part of determining the punishment. The victim, or relatives of the victim, may provide a written or oral statement, called a victim impact statement, which details the physical, emotional, and financial effects of a crime. The judge must take the statement into account when deciding on a sentence. A victim is not required to contribute a victim impact statement, but it is a good way to express the negative effects of a crime.
The Criminal Justice System Process
The following list details some of the major steps in the Pennsylvania criminal justice system. Note that the system varies by county and not every case fits this process.
- Investigation: A crime must first be reported to law enforcement to begin the prosecution process. Some crimes, like child abuse, must be reported regardless of whether or not the victim steps forward. Law enforcement collects evidence to help prosecutors understand the details of the crime.
- Criminal Complaint: Once the prosecutor studies the case and questions witnesses, he or she must decide whether to present the case to a local magistrate judge. A complaint is filed or a grand jury may return an indictment. Complaints or indictments are formal notices stating that the defendant is believed to have committed a crime and listing the charges.
- Summons or Arrest Warrant Issued: Once a complaint is filed, the defendant will receive a summons, or for more serious crimes, will be physically arrested. A summons is usually mailed and provides notice of the defendant’s preliminary hearing.
- Preliminary Arraignment/Hearing: Once the offender is charged, they are brought before a magistrate judge for an initial hearing. At this point, the judge may decide whether to hold the offender in prison until trial or release them. The judge may also grant bail. At this time the defendant will be asked to plead guilty or not guilty. Then, the Commonwealth must make a prima facie case, meaning that evidence that a crime was committed is present and the defendant is presumed to be the perpetrator. Depending on the county, a law enforcement officer or an Assistant District Attorney represents the Commonwealth. If a prima facie case is presented, the case is held for court.
- Information or Indictment: The District Attorney’s office files a formal charging document, called the Information, with the clerk of the Court of Common pleas. The document specifies the charges against the defendant.
- Formal Arraignment: The defendant is then given the copy of the Information and advised of their constitutional rights. Within 30 days of arraignment, the defendant may file various pretrial pleadings.
- Pretrial Litigation: If the defendant and his or her counsel feel they have appropriate grounds, they may file a pretrial pleading and request a hearing prior to trial. Some pretrial examples include a motion to suppress evidence, a motion for severance, or a motion for continuance to postpone the trial. Motions for continuance are common in the criminal justice system. Sometimes the defendant accepts a plea agreement, which requires him or her to plead guilty often in exchange for a lighter sentence or lesser charges. If no plea agreement is made, then the case is scheduled for trial. If a plea deal is accepted, the next step is sentencing.
- Trial: If the defendant moves forward with a trial, a jury trial or non-jury trial may occur. In trial, the Assistant District Attorney must establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In a jury case, the jury must return a unanimous verdict. In a non-jury trial, the judge must return the verdict. If found not guilty, the defendant is discharged. If found guilty, the defendant may be sentenced immediately or sentencing may be deferred.
- Sentencing: Before sentencing occurs, a local probation officer may prepare a pre-sentencing investigation report detailing the crime and the defendant’s history, if the judge orders it. The defendant, his or her counsel, and the Assistant District Attorney are present at the sentencing hearing. In Pennsylvania, some crimes carry a mandatory minimum sentence. For example, sexual assault crimes carry a minimum sentence and mandatory registration as a sex offender under Megan’s Law. The judge may also consider alternatives, such as a fine, community service, a jail or prison sentence, probation, or a combination. The judge may also order the defendant to make restitution to victims for out-of-pocket expenses.
- Post-Sentencing: A defendant may be sentenced to jail or prison time and may also be placed on probation. Conditions of probation may include completion of community service and counseling programs, as well as restitution to the victims. A defendant may also appeal the conviction or sentence.
Learn more about the differences between the criminal and civil justice systems.