For people who are facing their first encounter with the criminal justice system, there are some aspects that might be a mystifying. This can cause them to feel stress and uncertainty. As you can imagine, having these feelings for months while the case moves through the system is difficult and frustrating.
While there isn't really a way to take all of the unpleasantness out of the process, it is possible to learn a little about it so that you can feel prepared as you fight the charges you are facing. Here are some points to think about to get you started on your quest for knowledge about the criminal justice system:
Grand jury vs. trial jury
There are two types of juries involved in the criminal justice process -- the grand jury and the trial jury. The grand jury is the larger of the two and is comprised of 16 to 23 jurors. These men and women look at the evidence in a case to determine if there is enough to believe that a person committed the crime. If they find probable cause, they are likely to recommend that the person face criminal charges, which is known as an indictment. The meeting isn't open to the public and defendants don't have a right to attend.
The trial jury is much different. It consists of fewer jurors, usually six to 12. These jurors hear the arguments and see the evidence in a criminal case. The presentation of the evidence and testimony of witnesses is a matter of public record. Once the defense and prosecution give their closing arguments, the jurors receive their instructions and go into a private meeting to decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
The decision by a grand jury doesn't have to be followed. A prosecutor can decide to charge someone even if the grand jury decided against issuing an indictment. He or she can also decide not to charge a person after an indictment. This isn't the case for a trial jury. The decision by the trial jury must be followed by the judge.
Infraction vs. misdemeanor vs. felony
There are three different classifications of illegal actions that you might encounter. An infraction is the least serious of these three. Many minor traffic offenses fall under this category.
A misdemeanor is a more serious criminal action. These charges are usually associated with up to a year of confinement in the local jail instead of being sent to a state prison.
A felony is the most serious charge you can face. These charges can mean you are labeled as a felon if you are convicted. The incarceration period associated with these charges is usually greater than one year and will almost always take place in a state prison.
The classification of the charge has a direct impact on your defense. You should also realize that your case might not go before a grand jury and you may not have to face a trial jury if your case is resolved through a plea bargain.