Many people and organisations make up the criminal justice process, from police officers to criminal barristers to prisons. The following is a brief guide to what happens and who is involved at each stage in the criminal justice process.
The police are responsible for investigating crime. When a person is arrested, they are taken to a police station where they can present their version of the facts. If they are under 18, or have learning difficulties, then an appropriate adult (a parent, social worker or volunteer) may be asked to accompany them during the police interview.
At the police station, the suspect will be told their rights and asked if they want a solicitor to represent them. The police will then decide if they have enough evidence to charge the suspect with a criminal offence. If it is a straightforward case then the police may charge the suspect themselves. Otherwise, they will refer the case to a Crown Prosecutor (a solicitor or barrister who prosecutes crime) who will review the evidence and decide whether or not to charge the suspect.
Once the suspect has been charged, they must appear before a magistrates’ court. These courts hear 95 per cent of all crimes. The suspect will usually be released on bail and told when to appear in court. However, bail will sometimes be refused and the suspect will be kept in police custody until they appear in court.
Failing to appear at court is a criminal offence unless there is a very good reason, and can result in a prison sentence.
If the suspect pleads guilty, and the offence is minor, then the magistrate may sentence them up to six months in prison or a fine of up to £5,000. If the plea is not guilty, then the case may go to trial. More serious cases will be sent to the Crown Court, and may be heard by a jury of 12 people.
In Scotland, the suspect will either go to the sheriff court or, for more serious cases, the high court. The criminal justice system is broadly similar in Northern Ireland, England and Wales.
Everybody is entitled to a fair trial, and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The accused person is known as ‘the defendant’.
At the trial, the prosecution will present the case against the defendant, and the defence team will argue on behalf of the defendant. Evidence may be presented, and witnesses called. There may be more than one hearing. The magistrate or the district judge or sheriff will then weigh up the prosecution and defence case and decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty.
If there is a jury, the 12 members of the jury will retire to the jury room to consider whether the defendant is guilty or not. If ten out of the 12 decide on a guilty verdict, then their decision stands.
If the defendant is found not guilty then they are acquitted and are free to leave. If the verdict is guilty, then the judge will sentence the defendant. This could mean a discharge, prison, a community punishment or a fine. A discharge means that no punishment is imposed, although the crime remains on the individual’s criminal record.
In Scotland, a criminal jury has 15 members, and just a simple majority (eight members) is enough to return a guilty verdict. The jury also has a third option—the ‘not proven’ verdict. This is a controversial option, and there is an ongoing campaign to scrap the ‘not proven’ verdict. It means there is not enough evidence for a guilty verdict, but the jury is not convinced of the defendant’s innocence. For all practical purposes, a not proven verdict is the same as a not guilty verdict from the defendant’s point of view. They are free to leave the court.
Probation officers supervise offenders on community sentences and those released on licence from prison after serving more than one year. They also advise the courts on the personal circumstances of defendants and the likelihood of the defendant re-offending.
There are more than 70,000 people in prison. Offenders may be offered drug rehabilitation, education or vocational training.
These include a range of options. The judge may order that the defendant do unpaid work, such as gardening or removing graffiti, or that they comply with a drug rehabilitation programme.
Victims of crime may be asked to give evidence in court. Where necessary, anonymity and protection will be offered to witnesses. Victims may want to contact Victim Support, a free and confidential service offering practical and emotional support to people who have experienced crime, and their family and friends.
Victims of violent crimes may be able to claim compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.
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