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Basic Overview of the Criminal Justice System

Types of Criminal Charges:
  • MISDEMEANOR: A crime punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or up to a $2500 fine
  • FELONY: A crime punishable by one or more years in the state penitentiary

Types of Trial-Level Criminal Courts:
  • GENERAL DISTRICT COURT: Trial court for misdemeanors involving adults that do not have immediate familial relationship with their victims. Also hold preliminary hearings for felony cases.
  • JUVENILE & DOMESTIC RELATIONS COURT: Trial court for misdemeanors involving juvenile victims or defendants and those cases in which the defendants and victims have an immediate family relationship. Also holds preliminary hearings for felony cases.
  • CIRCUIT COURT: Trial court for felony cases and misdemeanor appeals.

Types of Criminal Hearings:
  • ARRAIGNMENT: A defendant’s first appearance before the court. The court reads the charges, determines whether the defendant will hire a lawyer, and sets a date for preliminary hearing or trial.
  • PRELIMINARY HEARING: A probable cause hearing for a felony. Here, the prosecutor must show that a crime probably occurred and the defendant probably did it.
  • INDICTMENT: A finding by the grand jury that a crime occurred, the defendant probably committed it, and the case should be tried.
  • TRIAL: a bench or jury hearing to determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
  • SENTENCING: A post-conviction hearing where both side may present evidence. After hearing evidence, the judge or jury determines the appropriate punishment.

Possible Outcomes in a Criminal Case:
  • ACQUITTAL or DISMISSAL: The defendant is found not guilty.
  • NOLLE PROSSED: The prosecutor elects not to prosecute the case.
  • CONVICTION: A defendant is found guilty and sentenced.

Other Terms to Know:
  • SUBPOENA: An order of the court for a witness to appear at a particular time and place to testify and/or produce documents in the control of the witness. Failure to appear when subpoenaed court result in criminal charges.
  • CAPIAS: A writ ordering the arrest of the named person. Typically issued when someone fails to appear to court or fails to comply with the court’s order.
  • SHOW CAUSE: A type of court order that requires one or more parties in a case to justify, explain or prove something to the court. 


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