Criminal justice in the United States is a process consisting of five distinct stages. Any understanding of the criminal justice system requires at least a general understanding of the associated stages.
The initial stage of criminal justice is investigation of an alleged crime. Various local, state and federal law enforcement agencies take part in investigating such allegations. In some instances, agencies from different levels of government work together on the same criminal investigation. A referral is made from a law enforcement agency to a prosecuting authority (a district attorney, state attorney or U.S. attorney, for example) upon a determination that a crime occurred and there is evidence that a certain person committed it.
Once an allegation of criminal conduct is turned over to a prosecuting attorney, he reviews the evidence and the statements of law enforcement officials. He determines whether probable cause exists to support a formal criminal charge against the suspect.
Once a crime is charged, the prosecution of a case begins. It can take several possible courses. A trial represents the ultimate phase of the prosecution stage in the criminal justice system.
Through a trial, a defendant is found guilty or not guilty of the charge. In the alternative, during this stage of criminal justice, cases resolve through plea negotiations between the defendant and her counsel and the prosecuting attorney.
If the defendant is convicted--found guilty--the sentencing stage begins, and includes an evaluation of the convict by a court official. The evaluation focuses on the convict's criminal history and background, the nature of any previous crimes, and the severity of the current offence.
Ultimately, the judge imposes a sentence that generally ranges from unsupervised probation to an extended term of incarceration. A sentence also potentially includes fines, an order of restitution, community service, treatment programs and other actions deemed necessary and appropriate by the court.
Service of Sentence
The final stage of criminal justice involves serving the sentence imposed by the court. If incarceration is ordered, that term typically is followed by parole (in a state case) or supervised released (in a federal case). Both parole and supervised release place various restrictions on a released convict's freedoms, rights and privileges.