Criminal Law Basics: All You Need to Know

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There is a big fascination with our Criminal Justice System. So much so that shows like Law & Order: SVU has made TV history by being the longest-running live-action show in the US. We love seeing justice being served. Yet some citizens aren’t sure of the basics of criminal law.

As citizens, we should have a general understanding of legal processes and procedures. Understanding the law is a basic step to understanding our responsibilities.

This guide will give you all you need to know about criminal law.

Crime: What is It?


A crime is anything that is illegal in the eyes of the law. Criminal law is the examination of what the law views as a crime and is made up of two parts: mens rea and actus reus.

Mens rea translates into the “guilty mind” and actus reus is “guilty act.” These two words are what the criminal system looks at the confirm if a crime has been committed.

A crime compared to against the four types of mens rea: intent/purpose, knowledge, negligence, and recklessness. For actus reus, there are three types: circumstance, conduct, consequence. The judges and lawyers involved will look at all the parts involved to determine if a crime was really committed and charges can be brought.

In the US, there are two types of crimes: misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes, and felonies are the most serious crimes. These two bigger types have some sub types depending on the level of severity in each one.
The punishment for misdemeanors is typically less than one year of jail time. Anything more than one year would be listed under felonies.

The Criminal Justice System


This system includes everything from investigation/arrest all to way to sentencing. There are many individuals involved in the process. Police, probation, and correctional officers, witnesses, attorneys, bail bondsmen, and of course judges. Each step of the criminal justice system is a carefully created step-by-step process.

In each step of the process, the accused is promised the protection of theirĀ fundamental rights which are in the US Constitution. As a citizen, it’s important to know these rights to make sure you are being treated fairly

The criminal justice system aims to provide the protection of your Constitutional rights. Specifically, they oversee the rights to a fair and speedy trial. The system is the neutral party that hears both sides of the story and decides which side has the best case.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the visual representation of justice is Lady Justice. A blindfolded woman who is holding scales in her outstretched hand. Judges (and juries!) are meant to be the physical version of Lady Justice; being blind to bias and weighing out what they hear.

The key players you will see in the criminal justice system will be the prosecution, the defense attorney who represents the accused, a jury if needed, and a judge. These players will be present from arraignment to sentencing, and even parole hearings.

The Criminal Process


The process begins when a crime is committed and an investigation starts. If enough evidence shows that a crime has been committed, the person that is thought responsible will be arrested and charged. The accused will have the right to contact their own attorney or be provided by a state attorney to oversee their proceedings.

Once they have been admitted to jail for holding, they are brought before a judge for arraignment and a court date will be set. The prosecution, defense, and judge will work together to decide if the accused is a danger to the public or a flight risk. This means can they be trusted to not commit another crime and/or will they show up for their court date.

Police officers, and the prosecuting attorney, will collect evidence and witnesses to figure out if the accused person is guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This is called the burden of proof and it is always up to the prosecuting attorney to shoulder this responsibility and fulfilling the burden of proof.

The criminal trial will then start once a jury has been picked and the selected court date arrives. Depending on the size of the case, a criminal trial can last anywhere from a few days to even a few years. It takes lots of time to get through all the witness testimonies, cross-examinations, evidence reviews, and jury debates.

The Aftermath


Once the trial is finished a verdict is made by the judge and jury and read out in front of the accused. The verdict will include the punishment and the accused will officially be charged for committing the crime. The person will have an official record in their file and they will start to serve the sentence right away.

Sentences with jail time will typically include a parole period. This means how much time the accused will have to physically spend in jail. When that time ends, they’re able to put in an application to serve their sentence outside of a cell.

For these situations, there is another case brought before a judge. A detailed report on their behavior in jail, any programs or recognitions they’ve completed since their official charge, and a personal statement will be given to the judge to review. A parole officer will be involved in giving suggestions based on their experience with the individual and experience of the charge with other individuals they’ve worked with.

Criminal Law Specialist


With all the knowledge you just gained, you’re one step closer to becoming a criminal law specialist and understanding both the process and the rights involved in criminal trial proceedings.

Be sure to check out our other posts for more informative pieces!

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