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Criminal Courts

Seeking A Decision

After arraignment, the prosecutor usually meets with the defendant and defense attorney to discuss a possible plea bargain. In a plea bargain, the defendant pleads guilty in return for reduced charges, a smaller sentence, or some other consideration. Throughout the process the judge, prosecutor, and public defender or defense attorney work together to help the case move as quickly as possible. Plea bargains are reached in over 90 percent of criminal cases, few actually go to trial. This is one point in the system where fairness between wealthy and poor defendants is difficult to achieve. Wealthy defendants can afford more than one defense attorney, often putting together a team of attorneys who work aggressively on their behalf.

If a plea bargain cannot be reached, a case goes to court. The process of deciding a case in court is called adjudication. The defendant can be found guilty or innocent, or if no verdict can be reached, it is called a "hung jury." With a hung jury, the defendant may face a retrial. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge determines if the defendant will go to jail (if the sentence is less than one year), prison (if the sentence is over one year), pay a fine, or get court supervision known as probation (no jail or prison time). In the early 2000s less than 40 percent of all defendants convicted of a crime in state and federal courts were sent to jail or prison.

Once sentencing is complete, the defendant can appeal the case to an appellate court. The appeal must be based on trial procedures, such as improper use of evidence or some other point on which the presiding judge might have made an error. In general, if a defendant is found guilty, he or she is turned over to correctional authorities after the verdict is read. In some special courts, a judge may stay involved in the case even after the sentencing phase.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCriminal Courts - Early American Courts, The Constitution And The Courts, Creating A National Court System, Federal Courts - Special state courts