The U.S. Criminal Justice Process: Definition & Steps

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  • 0:28 Investigation and Arrest
  • 2:33 Pretrial Activities
  • 4:30 Adjudication
  • 6:10 Sentencing
  • 6:57 Corrections
  • 7:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sherri Hartzell

Sherri has taught college business and communication courses. She also holds three degrees including communications, business, educational leadership/technology.

In this lesson, you will learn about the process of American criminal justice. Several key features of each step in the process will be discussed including the stages of criminal case processing.

The U.S. Criminal Justice Process

The criminal justice process is designed to provide justice and protection for every member of society through the conviction, punishment, and rehabilitation of the guilty. This purpose is accomplished through a series of steps taken by multiple criminal justice organizations, including the police, the courts, and corrections. In this lesson, you will learn about each phase of the criminal justice process and watch as Marty the Murderer is brought to justice!

Investigation and Arrest

It's two AM when Barney and Bobby get the call that there has been a homicide. As they make their way to the crime scene, they reflect on what role they will play as detectives. The criminal justice process first begins with an investigation, and this is where Barney and Bobby will be instrumental in seeking justice for the murder victim. The investigation provides police with the opportunity to collect evidence and attempt to reconstruct the crime as it occurred. If Barney and Bobby are lucky, they will be able to arrest the offender at the scene. If not, they will need to obtain an arrest warrant from a judge to provide the legal basis for an apprehension and detention of the offender by police. The arrest warrant may also be used for the search and seizure of an individual's property.

Luckily for Barney and Bobby, the perpetrator - Marty the Murderer - was still on scene when they arrived. This allowed them to make the arrest, whereby the police take the offender into custody, removing their freedoms. Barney and Bobby make this arrest with the intention of bringing criminal sanctions on the offender.

Before the police begin their questioning of Marty the Murderer, he is advised of his Miranda rights to ensure the admissibility of their comments during interviews with police against them in criminal proceedings. If Barney and Bobby fail to do this, they will not be able to use anything that Marty the Murderer says during the interview process, even if he admits guilt. While there are several versions of the Miranda rights, they all have the key elements of the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.

In this case, Marty the Murderer chose to plead the fifth and declined to give potentially self-incriminating information. Because Marty the Murderer was unwilling to cooperate with police and Barney and Bobby had enough evidence to hold him, he was booked into jail where he would await to speak with a judge. The booking process involves taking pictures of the criminal, collecting fingerprints, and documenting personal information as well as details of the charges, which is later used to create a formal arrest record. Finally, the offender is asked to sign a written record of his/her Miranda rights.

Pretrial Activities

Within hours of being booked, Marty the Murderer must be brought before a magistrate, a judicial officer for an initial appearance. The initial appearance allows the magistrate to inform the offender of their charges, remind them of their rights, and potentially offer bail. Bail can be in the form of money or property and serves as collateral to assure the judge that the offender will appear for their scheduled court date once released from police custody.

Many criminals are released on their own recognizance or to the care of someone else. Because murder is considered a very serious offense, Marty the Murderer will not be granted the opportunity to bail himself out. He must wait for the next stages of the process. He is, however, offered to have an attorney appointed to him if he is unable to afford one on his own.

The next stage in the process is called the preliminary hearing, where it is determined whether sufficient evidence exists against an offender to continue the criminal justice process. The judge will be looking to determine if there is enough probable cause to believe that a crime was committed, and that the offender in the courtroom was the one who committed it. The prosecutor is given the opportunity to test the strength of the evidence against Marty the Murderer, and his defense attorney is also allowed to review the evidence at this time through a process called discovery. If Marty the Murderer's defense attorney feels there is a significant amount of evidence against him, the attorney might ask for a plea bargain to a less severe offense. The prosecutor has the opportunity to file an indictment with the court requesting for a grand jury to assess the evidence to determine if the case is strong enough to go to trial.

If the process is continued past the preliminary hearing, Marty the Murderer will move on to the arraignment phase of the criminal process, whereby he appears in front of a judge who has the authority to conduct a trial. Marty the Murderer is read the indictment and is given the opportunity to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest.


After giving his plea, Marty is moved to the adjudication phase, where the trial by jury begins. The purpose of this criminal trial is to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Once the trial has been initiated, the jury selection process begins whereby both prosecution and defense attorneys question potential jurors and select 12 individuals who they believe to be impartial. The jury's job is to provide a unanimous verdict on the basis of evidence presented during the trial.

The first information the jury hears is the opening statements from both prosecution and defense attorneys as to their intentions for the trial, what they intend to prove, and how they will do it. Now the attorneys can begin the presentation of evidence, where the prosecution begins by offering evidence to show the defendant is guilty, followed by the defense's presentation of innocence. This is where the evidence and testimony collected by Barney and Bobby will be heard.

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