Understanding the Differences and Similarities between the Criminal and Civil Justice Systems
Victims of crime in Pennsylvania have the opportunity to seek justice through both the criminal and civil justice systems. The criminal justice system seeks to punish criminal offenders by imposing a variety of sanctions, such as probation, community service, electronic home monitoring and, in the most severe cases, imprisonment. Oftentimes a crime victim is awarded restitution for out-of-pocket expenses, such as medical bills. This restitution is ordered by the court, but is often difficult to collect, especially if the criminal is in jail or indigent.
Unlike the criminal justice system, the civil justice system may provide victims an opportunity to receive compensation for physical, emotional, and economic damage caused by a crime. Many key factors separate the two systems, and oftentimes victims of crime aren’t always aware that each system handles cases differently.
The main differences between the criminal justice system and civil justice system are as follows:
- Criminal cases are handled by a lawyer called a prosecutor, or District Attorney, as crimes are considered a harm against society. In a criminal case, the prosecutor represents the victim as well as society as a whole. In a civil case, the victim engages his or her own lawyer to pursue compensation from the criminal defendant for the harm suffered.
- Punishment varies. Most civil cases result in monetary damages, while criminal cases can result in jail time or probation.
- The standard of proof is different for each system. In the criminal justice system, crimes must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Civil cases are proved by a lower standard, such as “the preponderance of evidence.”
- Both criminal and civil cases usually allow for trial by jury, but may also be decided by a judge without a jury.
- In a criminal case, the defendant is entitled to an attorney. If he or she cannot afford one, the state must provide an attorney. In a civil case, the defendant must pay for a lawyer or defend him or herself.
- Under criminal law, defendants have many protections, such as the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Many of these protections are not available to a defendant in a civil case.
The O.J. Simpson Case
One example that shows the differences between the criminal and civil justice systems is the O.J. Simpson case. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, as judged by a criminal court jury in 1995. However, two years later, a civil court found O.J. Simpson responsible for the deaths of the victims. The civil suit was filed by the families of Brown and Goldman and resulted in a reward of over $40 million in damages.
In order to understand why this happened, you must consider the burdens of proof required in both legal systems. In the criminal system, the case against the defendant must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In an unlawful death civil case, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant’s intentional, negligent, or reckless conduct resulted in the victim’s death. This is based off of the preponderance of evidence, which is a lesser burden of proof than in a criminal case.
In the case of O.J. Simpson, a criminal jury did not find the accused to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The civil jury found it “more than likely” that he caused the death of the two victims. The scales must tip ever so slightly in the victim’s favor. Thus, victims that do not receive justice in the criminal system may still have an opportunity to do so in the civil system.