There are 2.2 million people in prison or jail in the United States today. Many of them need support in navigating the criminal justice system and re-entering society after incarceration.
At the same time, government policies are getting tougher on crime and drugs. This means that there are growing opportunities for young leaders to take a role in fighting crime, conducting investigations, and supporting people who have been convicted of crimes.
Whether you’re interested in working as a police officer, a criminal investigator, a forensic scientist, or a lawyer, criminal justice offers a wide range of options for advancing your career.
Before exploring the world of criminal justice careers, you may be asking yourself one basic question: What does it mean to be convicted of a crime?
It’s not as simple as getting arrested and going to trial, so we’ve compiled a useful guide to help you understand the basics of criminal justice.
Read on to find out more.
What Does It Mean to Be Convicted of a Crime?
Before a person can be convicted of a crime, they first have to be charged. This means that they are formally accused of committing a crime.
If a person is charged with a crime before they are arrested, the police will issue a warrant for their arrest. When the police locate this person, they must provide a copy of the warrant stating the reason for the arrest.
Now you’re probably wondering: What happens after arrest?
The person who was arrested will be held in jail, normally for no more than 48 hours. During this time, the lawyer working for the state – known as the prosecutor – reads the police report and decides whether the person who’s been arrested should be charged with a crime.
The prosecutor can also go to a grand jury and ask whether any criminal charges should be brought. Grand juries are different from trial juries. They can decide whether to file charges, but they do not decide guilt.
What Happens in the Preliminary Hearing?
Now let’s say that the prosecutor or grand jury decides that there is enough evidence to press charges. At this point, a defense lawyer can receive information from the prosecution and begin compiling evidence to support the person charged with a crime, known as the “defendant.”
If the prosecutor or grand jury decide to proceed with the case, the judge can hold what is called a preliminary hearing. During this hearing, the judge will decide whether there is enough evidence to take the defendant to trial.
The judge will read the warrant, and the defense lawyer will have an opportunity to challenge the prosecutor’s case. Sometimes defense lawyers can get cases dismissed. At other times, the defense lawyer and prosecutor will agree to a “plea bargain” to settle the case without a trial.
If the case is not dismissed, the defendant will have a chance to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest in the preliminary hearing. The defendant’s chosen plea will determine whether or not a trial will take place.
Guilty, Not Guilty, or No Contest?
Now let’s break down these three plea options:
- Guilty means that the defendant admits to committing a crime and forfeits the right to a trial.
- Not guilty means that the defendant does not admit to committing a crime and must attend the trial.
- No contest means that the defendant claims neither guilt nor innocence, and instead chooses to go straight to the sentencing phase.
The defendant will have to attend trial only if they plead not guilty. If they plead guilty or no contest, they can bypass the trial and proceed to sentencing.
In the trial, the government will have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is guilty of the crime. Sometimes a jury will decide the outcome of the trial, and sometimes the judge will make the decision without a jury.
If the verdict of the trial is guilty, a sentencing hearing will take place.
If the court rules the defendant not guilty in the trial, this may be referred to as an “acquittal.” While these two terms have the same general meaning, “acquittal” is seen as the more accurate term. It reflects the fact that a court can never definitively prove guilt or innocence.
Learn more about the differences between “not guilty” and “acquittal” verdicts here.
What Is a Sentencing Hearing?
In the sentencing hearing, the judge will take all evidence into account and determine the penalty that the defendant will face for the crime.
First, the prosecutor will speak, outlining evidence from the trial and making the case for the state’s desired sentence. Then the defense lawyer will speak, presenting evidence in favor of the defendant’s desired sentence.
During this hearing, the victim, the victim’s family, or members of the public may also be able to speak to the court about any factors they think should be taken into account. The defendant will be the last person to speak.
At the close of the hearing, the judge will state the sentence.
Understanding the Rights of the Accused
People who are accused of crimes have certain rights that give them the best possible chance of receiving a fair outcome in their case.
One of the most basic rights is known as the right to remain silent. This means that someone accused of a crime does not have to provide any details to the police without first receiving advice from a lawyer. This helps to protect people against accidentally saying something that could be used against them.
People accused of crimes also have the right to speak to a lawyer. If they are unable to afford a lawyer, one will be appointed by the court.
Does a Career in Criminal Justice Appeal to You?
For those of you considering a career in criminal justice, we hope that you now have a better understanding of the question: What does it mean to be convicted of a crime?
Check out our blog for more helpful career tips and advice on becoming a leader in your workplace.