There are several crucial steps to the American criminal justice process in terms of investigating crimes and putting offenders through the system. Here, the criminal justice system is presented as an eight step process.
The first step in criminal justice, is, of course, detection Without determining that a criminal offense has occurred, either by commission or omission, there is no way to proceed. There must first be good reason to believe that a crime has in fact taken place.
The next logical step is good old-fashioned police work. When a crime is suspected or known, police have to try and determine who committed the crime, how they did it and why. This is the investigative process of the criminal justice system, handled by law enforcement. The officer or agency in charge of a particular case must dig below the surface to figure out who may have had motive or opportunity to commit the criminal act, as well as many other aspects.
This brings us to the next step in the American criminal justice process: gathering evidence. This is potentially the most important step in the whole criminal justice process, as each of the following steps is dependent on this step being executed properly and in a fully legal manner. A crime scene is not a place to be cutting corners. Improperly handled evidence can result in a court case being thrown out, even in cases where the suspect is guilty.
There are three main types of evidence. The first type is that which proves a crime has been committed. This is referred to as corpus delecti evidence. The second type, called tracing evidence, links the suspect directly to the victim, elements of the crime (money, weapons, etc) or crime scene, therefore proving involvement. The third type of evidence is often microscopic, but of significant importance in court: trace evidence. Trace evidence would refer to such pieces of minute evidence as hairs, fibers, and small blood drops. Crime scene technicians and forensic lab technicians will process and handle this evidence on behalf of the police, and for later use by the courts.
Locating and arresting the suspect is the next logical step to solving a crime. Before a police officer can prove the relevance or reliability of any piece of evidence in open court, they must establish and apprehend a suspect. This step must only be taken when enough evidence exists to form a solid court case.
Trial is a point of no return. If a major element of the case is lost due to valuable evidence being excluded, the case could result in a mistrial, or worse, a dismissal. If a suspect is found ‘not guilty’ because the judge threw out the murder weapon or DNA evidence, double jeopardy will attach, forbidding the suspect from being tried a second time for the same crime.
The double jeopardy clause can be circumvented in cases where both state and federal charges can apply independently for the same crime, such as kidnapping.
Next in the criminal justice process comes the prosecution phase, which is handled by the courts. The prosecutor will commiserate with police to gain insight, but ultimately has sole discretion over which charges to file, and against whom they will be filed. In a felony case, a Grand Jury is often presented with the police evidence, to ensure enough probable cause exists to investigate the matter, and charge a suspect.
A criminal trial is made up of several steps, with both the prosecution and the defense presenting evidence and providing sound arguments why their side should be believed. Those presiding over, or rendering verdicts in a criminal case must remain objective while weighing the evidence and making a decision on the suspect’s guilt.
The conclusion of the criminal justice court process is called adjudication, which essentially means ‘the passing of judgment’. This judgment must be free of prejudice; otherwise in the case of a guilty verdict, it may not stand up to any appeals the defense may file. Appeals are used to argue constitutional violations during trial, and not the facts of the criminal case itself.
Once a decision has been made, the criminal justice system moves the adjudicated person through to sentencing. The penalty assigned is based on the crime and any state minimums the judge or jury is bound by. Sentencing can range from probation, time in jail (misdemeanors, under one year), time in prison (felonies, more than a year), or even death (varies by state).
Finally, the last step is punishment, which is the corrections phase of the criminal justice system. The execution of the sentence passed is considered the end phase of the criminal justice process. Only when a criminal has been identified, investigated, formally charged, tried in court, is sentenced and serves out their punishment, is the system’s process complete, and justice served.
College Paper from Intro To CJ, Jennifer Waite, 2001.