criminology unit 6: criminal case process

Terms in this set (15)

In September 1993, Christopher Simmons, a seventeen year old from Missouri, broke into the home of Shirley Crook. Along with an accomplice, he bound and gagged Crook before placing her in a minivan. Simmons drove the woman to a state park near the Meramec River. On a train trestle over the river, the two teens tied up Crook's hands and feet and covered her head with a towel. They pushed Crook off the trestle and into the river below. She drowned in the water and her body was recovered the following day.

Christopher Simmons was arrested for the crime and sentenced to the death penalty. The case against him was strong; he had confessed to the crime and there was evidence that he had premeditated the murder. However, the Supreme Court ruled during an appeal that no one under the age of 18 (when their crime was committed) should be executed in the United States. Simmons was resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Do you think Simmons should have faced the death penalty? Under what circumstances should a juvenile be treated as an adult in the court system? This case illustrates several topics that we will be considering in this unit: the criminal case process and juvenile justice.

For much of history, punishing crime and deviance was a haphazard and inconsistent endeavor. A local community might have different laws and policies than the next town and the punishments handed out were often dependent on who was doing the punishing rather than by standards of severity and type of punishment. A systematic criminal justice process did not begin in the United States until 1929 when the Wickersham Report, a study of the administration of justice, began. The report found that there was "little justice in the criminal justice system." Over the next several decades, the laws and policies in the federal and state criminal justice systems began to be standardized, as the Supreme Court began setting rules and regulations about police procedures and corrections.

The criminal justice system includes the police, the courts, and corrections. The various parts of the system are interrelated to each other and work together to form the whole system of criminal justice. The police, courts, and corrections all have common goals in regards to crime.
Even when a crime has been committed, the crime and the offender do not automatically enter the system. As we've discussed in earlier units, many crimes go unreported, keeping the crime from becoming an official case in the system. In order for an act to become a part of the criminal justice system, someone must first notice the act (my wallet or purse is missing). Then the act has to be defined as breaking a law (someone has stolen my wallet or purse as opposed to I must have left my wallet or purse at home). The act then has to be reported to law enforcement. Law enforcement will review the situation and redefine what may have happened (was the wallet or purse stolen or merely misplaced?) If law enforcement feels that a crime has occurred, the act will be recorded as a crime known to police and the criminal case on the act has entered the system.

Victims of crimes play a very important role in the criminal justice process. In fact, we could argue that victims are the first "gatekeepers" of the whole system. This is because victims make the initial decision about whether they think a crime has occurred or not and then make the decision about whether or not to report the criminal act if they believe that is what the act was. In many cases, if the crime is not reported by the victim, it will never enter the system at all.

After the victim has reported the crime, law enforcement has to make decisions about the situation. One of the first decisions that has to be made is whether the police will investigate the crime or not. Given the number of crimes committed, not all crimes can be investigated. For example, the police are more likely to investigate a report of a murder than they are of a snatched purse. Why do you think this is the case? As you might suspect, this decision is based on several factors, including the seriousness of the crime and the likelihood of catching the offender.

In addition, the police also have to later make decisions about whether to make an arrest or to drop the investigation. These decisions may be based on whether or not they have a cooperative witness to the crime who will testify or whether they think the situation should be handled in a way different than an arrest.

Legal standards play an important role in how a criminal case is handled and whether an arrest is made. The U.S. Constitution says that for a person to be taken into custody (or "seized") probable cause must exist that the person committed a crime. Probable cause means that the person's potential guilt of a crime is high enough to "seize" them. For example, if a person is seen driving a stolen car, the potential for their guilt would be great enough that the police could take the person into custody. During their investigation, the police also have to abide by rules about how evidence about the crime is gathered. The exclusionary rule prohibits the use of evidence in a criminal case that has been gathered illegally. When the police deem that a person should be arrested, they recite the Miranda warning, which tells the person arrested about their rights.
Once an individual has been arrested, they may enter the next phase of the criminal justice system: prosecution and pretrial. In this phase, prosecutors prepare the charges against a person and the individual may make his or her first appearance before a court in a preliminary hearing. Many people who are initially arrested may not make it into this stage. In some cases, their cases have already been dismissed or dropped. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including prosecutors feeling that there is not enough evidence. In some cases, the offender will be a juvenile or someone who is mentally ill, which may make the processes different than for an ordinary offender.

After a person is arrested, they are taken before a magistrate, or a low-level judge, who determines if probable cause does exist. If probable cause exists, the judge decides whether to release the person on their own recognizance, put the person into the custody of another person, release them on bail, or detain the person in jail. These decisions depend on a number of factors, including whether the person presents a possible danger to the public and the seriousness of the crime that the person is charged with.

The preliminary hearing comes next. It is a preview of the trial in front of a judge for the court case to follow. The prosecution must show enough evidence to the judge to convince him or her that the criminal case should go forward. In other words, the prosecution has to show that it is reasonable to believe that the person committed the crime. The defense does not have to present any evidence in this hearing and they have the advantage of getting to hear what evidence the prosecution has. Often, the decision on what plea to make (guilty or not guilty) or to participate in plea bargain negotiations is made after hearing what evidence the prosecution has.

After the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor has to decide whether to charge the individual with the crime and move forward. The prosecutor also decides whether to put the case before a grand jury and what evidence to present to the grand jury. A grand jury is a panel of citizens who hear the prosecution's case in secret hearings and decide whether the individual should be formally charged. The grand jury can issue an indictment or an accusation of guilt against the defendant.

Once the prosecutor or grand jury have decided to charge the individual, plea bargaining negotiations can begin. When an individual is charged with a crime, they have the option of admitting to being guilty of the crime, which means that a trial will not be needed. The individual can also say that they are not guilty, which forces the state to hold a trial on the matter. In some cases, the prosecutor and the defendant (and his or her lawyers) will negotiate on a plea bargain. Under a plea bargain, the defendant pleads guilty to a reduced or modified plea, which eliminates the need for a trial and often gives the defendant a more lenient punishment for the crime.
After sentencing, the criminal case enters the corrections phase, where the offender serves his or her punishment. The system makes a decision about where the individual should be placed. This decision is often based on a variety of factors, including the level of security needed and any treatment that the individual may need.

For crimes that are deemed less serious and the offender seems unlikely to repeat the crime, a community sentence might be used. Probation is one alternative to prison and offers the individual the ability to stay within the community as long as certain rules and conditions are met. Some states have also been using alternative sanctions or punishments that are not the traditional probation or imprisonment. You may have seen examples of alternative sanctions on television reality programs or the news. They include the so-called boot camps that offenders, particularly juveniles, may be sent to.

For more serious crimes, institutional sentences are often imposed. You are probably more familiar with this as prison or jail. In many cases the department of corrections will determine where the individual is placed. For example, convicted offenders may be placed in low or high security prisons.

Individuals are released from their sentences in one of two ways. First, an individual may serve the full sentence that has been imposed. For example, an individual might be sentenced to prison for five years. At the end of those five years, the individual is released from prison. Second, an individual may be released on parole, which is a supervised release before the person's sentence officially ends. Originally, parole was a reward for good behavior in prison and the promise that the individual would continue to be law abiding if released. Today, parole is usually just an early release from prison when the parole board approves it.
So far, we have focused on the criminal justice system as it applies to adult offenders. However, children and young adults also commit crimes. The issue of juvenile offenders is a complicated one: should we be tough on juvenile offenders to deter others or should we try to rehabilitate them to become law-abiding citizens as adults? The answer is a tricky one. It often depends on the nature of the crime and the age of the individual.

In general, juveniles are given the same rights as adults in a criminal case. These rights include the right to counsel, the right to timely notice of a charge, and the right to avoid self-incrimination. However, giving these rights to juveniles also brings up questions of whether they should be held to the same responsibilities as adults.

In many cases, the United States is moving toward holding juveniles and young adults to similar responsibilities in some cases. For example, the age at which an individual can be tried as an adult has been lowered in a number of states to 14 in some states, 10 in a few, and some states do not specify a lower age limit. States have also lowered the maximum age for juvenile courts. In 37 states, the upper age limit is 17, but some states have age limits of 15 and 16. In other words, in some states, if a sixteen year old commits a crime, he or she will be tried as an adult regardless of the crime or the circumstances. In addition, many states exclude certain crimes from the juvenile courts. The crime most often exempted is murder, meaning that a juvenile who kills someone will often go straight to adult courts.

In some states, prosecutors have the ability to bypass the juvenile court process altogether. Direct file is the power by prosecutors to directly try juveniles in adult courts. While many people think that this makes sense for some crimes, such as murder, it also puts greater stress on the adult courts, who are overwhelmed with adult cases already.

While many aspects of the juvenile and adult court processes are similar, there are some differences as well. One of the first difference is that juveniles are "taken into custody" while adults are arrested for crimes. In other words, the state takes responsibility for the juvenile, linking back to ideas of caring for juveniles as part of rehabilitation. Juvenile cases also begin with a petition rather than criminal charges as adults face. While adults may be given the option of bail, when juveniles are released during the court process they are released into the custody of parents. Finally, adults are found to be guilty of crimes, but, in the same situation, juveniles are considered "delinquent."