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How Does the Criminal Justice System Work?

The criminal justice system is comprised of three major institutions which process a case from inception, through trial, to punishment. A case begins with law enforcement officials, who investigate a crime and gather evidence to identify and use against the presumed perpetrator. The case continues with the court system, which weighs the evidence to determine if the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If so, the corrections system will use the means at their disposal, namely incarceration and probation, to punish and correct the behavior of the offender.

Throughout each stage of the process, constitutional protections exist to ensure that the rights of the accused and convicted are respected. These protections balance the need of the criminal justice system to investigate and prosecute criminals with the fundamental rights of the accused (who are presumed innocent).

Law Enforcement

Though a number of rights derived from the Constitution protect the accused from abuses and overreaching from law enforcement officers, the arguably most important of these rights are the Miranda advisement and the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Miranda rights are the familiar refrain of police dramas. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be held against you in the court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you." Though we are all familiar with these rights, officers are nevertheless required to remind arrestees of these rights before they are questioned.

The other major restriction on the investigative stage of a case is the prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. This prevents officers from searching a suspect or his home without a warrant. There are exceptions for extenuating circumstances, such as when an officer is in "hot pursuit" of a suspect or where evidence might be destroyed, such as when a suspected drug dealer runs into a restroom.

Court System

Much like the law enforcement stage of a case, there are dozens of restrictions on the court's ability to prosecute a case, including the right to confront one's accusers, the right against incriminating one's self, the right to counsel, and the right to a jury trial. The primary purpose of all of these protections is to ensure a fair trial for the accused.

The defendant has a right to be represented by either an attorney of their choosing, or, if they cannot afford one, court-appointed counsel. The jury must be a fair cross-section of the community, which in most cases will not lead to a jury composed of a single race or gender.

Corrections

If the defendant is convicted and the charges merit jail time, they will be sent to the corrections system for punishment. Typically, this involves probation, incarceration, or both. Probation can be either supervised or unsupervised. Supervised probation requires the offender to check in regularly with an officer to ensure compliance with the terms of his probation. Unsupervised probation means that a person only faces jail time or other punishment if they run further afoul of the law.

Incarceration is also a common outcome of criminal trials, especially in more serious cases. The convict is housed in either jail or prison. Jails are usually located in each county and are for less serious offenses. Jail terms usually do not exceed one year. Prison terms are usually for longer than a year and almost always involve serious felony offenses.

The primary constraint on abuses in the correctional system is the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. There are many ways in which this prohibition has come into play in our corrections system, including jail overcrowding, improper medical care, and in physical abuses at the hands of corrections officers. Though violations do occur, they usually will not result in a suspension of one's sentence. Rather, the remedy is typically injunctive relief and/or monetary damages obtained via a civil rights lawsuit. 

Next Steps
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