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The Criminal Justice System: From Arrest to Appeal


When the police investigate a crime, they must look for probable cause.  This means that there is reason to believe a crime has occurred, and reason to believe that a certain individual committed the crime.

Once the police have established probable cause, they can obtain a probable cause warrant through the Prosecutor’s Office.  This allows them to arrest and incarcerate the suspected individual pending further court action.

An Arraignment in Municipal Court follows an arrest on the basis of a probable cause warrant.  At the initial arraignment, the Judge sets bond in the case, and in the case of a felony crime, sets the date for a preliminary hearing.

Posting bond is the right of every person charged with a crime, before he or she has been proven guilty of that crime.  The only exception is a capital murder case (death penalty) when the Judge can refuse bond.  The purpose of bond is to assure that the individual charged will appear for future hearings in the case.  It is not punishment.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled and held to make certain that the Judge agrees that there is probable cause. A preliminary hearing is similar to a trial, but it is not a trial.  If the Judge finds probable cause, he will bind the defendant over to the Grand Jury.

A Grand Jury hearing is held in felony cases to determine if the person suspected of a crime or crimes should be formally charged.  This is another method of finding probable cause that a crime was committed and probable cause that the suspect committed the crime.  Testimony taken during Grand Jury hearings is “secret”.  In jurisdictions where the Grand Jury meets on a regular, frequent basis, the preliminary hearing can be omitted and cases can be taken directly to a Grand Jury.  This is a usual practice of the Scioto County Prosecutor’s Office.

An indictment is a formal charge of felonious misconduct.  The suspected individual must be served with a copy of the indictment to inform him or her of the charges.  All criminal cases are entitled, “State of Ohio vs. The Defendant’s Name”.  Crimes are considered to be offenses against “the people”.

After the defendant is served with the Indictment, there will be an additional arraignment held in Common Pleas Court.  At this hearing the defendant will enter a plea (of “guilty” or “not guilty”); an attorney will have been hired or appointed to represent the defendant; the Judge will review the amount of bond, to either keep it the same or change it; and dates for a pre-trial and trial will be set.

A pre-trial is actually a conference in the Judge’s chambers.  At this conference, the investigating officer, the prosecutor assigned to the case, the defense attorney, a representative of Adult Probation, and the Judge are present.  The arresting officer presents the facts of the case, the prosecutor informs the others of the State’s position on the case, and the defense attorney discusses his view of the case.  The representative from Adult Probation will describe the defendant’s criminal history.  The victim advocate represents the victim’s interest to the prosecuting attorney at this hearing.  If there is to be any plea negotiation in the case, it will probably be discussed at the pre-trial.

Before there is actually a trial in a criminal case, assistant prosecuting attorneys and victim advocates meet with the victims in the case, and with any other witnesses who will testify.  This is called trial preparation, and takes place so that the victim or witness knows the questions the prosecutor plans to ask, and the prosecutor knows what the witness will answer.  Sometimes in criminal cases, motions are filed that require a hearing in court.  Occasionally victims and witnesses must testify at these hearings, and the prosecutor handling the case will prepare the witness just as they will be prepared for the actual trial.

When individuals are required to testify in a criminal case, they are notified by a document called a “subpoena”. A subpoena is referred to as “compulsory process”.  This means that if someone receives a subpoena, that person is compelled to appear in court unless the attorney issuing the subpoena excuses the person, or the person somehow manages to have the subpoena “quashed”, or made legally invalid.

The Trial in a criminal case is the hearing at which either a Judge or a jury must serve as the “finder of fact” to determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person accused actually committed the crime with which he or she is charges.  The defendant in the case has the choice of whether the judge alone will decide the case.

After the trial, the tier of fact should return a verdict.  All jury verdicts must be unanimous.  If the defendant is found “not guilty”, the case is over and the defendant is releases.  If the defendant is found guilty, the case will be scheduled for sentencing.  If the jury cannot reach a verdict, it is considered a “mistrial’ and the defendant may be retried before a new jury.

At the Sentencing hearing, the judge will announce the sentence he is imposing upon the convicted person.  This hearing may be held immediately after the verdict, but more frequently it is held at a later date.  Before sentencing, the Judge may order that a presentence investigation be done.

As a part of the Presentence Investigation, the Probation Officer assigned to the case will send each victim of the crime a Victim Impact Statement.  This form asks a variety of questions about the effect the crime had on the victim.  Included are questions about physical harm, financial loss, and other similar matters.  It is important that the form be completed and returned, as Judges do not like to proceed with sentencing without the Victim Impact Statement.

In addition to the written victim impact statement, crime victims also may, at the Judge’s option, read an oral victim impact statement at the hearing before the sentence is announced.  Most victims who choose this option write our brief statement that will take approximately two minutes to read, outlining the way they and their family suffered from the crime.

In Ohio, a ” Truth in Sentencing” policy (effective July 1, 1996) determines what sentence the convicted offender will receive.  The most serious crimes are punished by prison sentences.  The Judge selects a number within the range of years as the sentence.  There are guidelines for Judges to assist them in determining what sentence to give.  Offenders sentenced to prison must serve the full period of time.  There is no “good time credit” as was the policy under prior law.  However, offenders who are sentenced for crimes committed before the new “Truth in Sentencing” law receive sentences under the old policy.  This means that some offenders receive indefinite sentences, may receive good time credits, and are released on parole at a certain point.

Offenders under the new law are not released and then supervised on parole; however, those incarcerated for the most serious crimes are supervises for one year after being released from prison.

Offenders convicted of the less serious felony crimes, usually involving property loss or damage, generally will not receive prison sentences.  Rather, they may receive some combination of “Community Control” and sanctions, including, for example:  orders to pay restitution to the crime victim or victims, fines, house arrest, community service, drug treatment, etc.  The period of “community control” can be up to five years.  If the offender does not comply with the ordered sanctions, the Judge can order the offender back into court, and issue a new sentence, which could be a prison term.

For some offenses, the judge may order early release of the offender from prison.  In order to grant an early release, the Judge must hold a hearing.  The Prosecutor’s Office is notified of the hearing, and in turn must notify the victim.  The original victim impact statement will be considered by the Judge and the victim has an opportunity to make an additional statement at this hearing, if he or she desires.  Early release is not intended for the most serious crimes; nor, is it intended for sex offenses.  When Judges grant early release in these types of crimes, they must give their reasons for doing so.

There is one other step in the criminal justice process that is significant.  Every convicted defendant has the right to appeal particularly if the Judge has not followed the sentencing guidelines provided to him.  Appeals of convictions must be based upon the legal arguments, not upon the facts of the case.  The fact that an appeal is filed does not necessarily mean that there will be a new trial.  After the first appeal, a defendant can appeal to a higher court if his attorney thinks it is advisable.  Crime victims are notified when appeals are filed, and of the outcome of the appeal.

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