Types of Criminal Offenses
In the United States, there are two types of criminal offenses. The first is a misdemeanor, and the second is a felony. The criminal law system treats misdemeanors as the less serious of two offenses, and those who committed them typically receive smaller fines or shorter jail sentences. As for the felonies, they are considered serious offenses that usually entail larger fines and longer jail sentences. Unless one chooses to enter a guilty plea in the first instance, many years of criminal justice process might pass from the arrest for a felony to the final plea at both the state and federal levels. An analysis of the felony criminal charge system reveals that while the system protects most of the constitutional rights of a suspect, it is also institutionally unfair and needs reforms.
Step of the Felony Charge: Arrest, Booking, and Bail/Bond
- The first step of the felony charge is the arrest. It occurs when the police restrain the person of the suspect and put him/her in custody. A police officer may arrest a person in several instances (Cole, Smith & DeJong, 2015). First, it might happen if he/she detects someone is committing a crime.
- Second, an officer may not observe the person committing a crime directly but may have probable cause to consider that the felony took place. After the arrest, the police have to book the suspect and place the arrestee in custody (Cole et al., 2015). At this stage, there are several contingencies that can arise. First, police officers are usually armed. In case criminals resist arrest, the police can use their weapons, what might lead to the lethal consequences or grievous injuries. Second, suspects can be armed as well, what might result in injuries or the death of the officers.
- Third, if both the police and the suspects resort to weapon usage, the death or injury of other people, who are not directly involved in the case, is possible.
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During the arrest, there are two Constitutional rights under threat. The first one is the right to liberty (Cole et al., 2015). This right is restricted in the interests of the public safety and law enforcement, but a court can restore it if a person gets a bail or a bond. The second secures one’s right not to be forced to self-incriminate (Kuersten & Songer, 204). In this case, the police have to read a person his/her Miranda rights, which ensure that the police cannot use any evidence they use in questioning the person in court unless he/she knows about it. Furthermore, the arrestee is also informed that he/she can ask for a lawyer at any given time, what safeguards the right to have an attorney. In South Carolina, as long as the offense the prosecution have charged a person with is not a capital offense or the one in which life incarceration is the maximum punishment, the person usually, with few exceptions only, gets a bail (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). One’s bail hearing should be within 24 hours after the arrest.
Roll Call and Arraignment
In South Carolina, a roll call is the first appearance in a court. In this instance, the court’s duty is to ensure that one has a defense attorney unless the person prefers to represent him/herself (Cole et al., 2015). If the accused cannot afford the services of a legal counsel, the court will furnish an attorney for them. The threat, at this point, is that the suspect is not required to enter a plea. At the state level, it happens in the General Sessions Court while, at the federal level, it proceeds from the District Court of the United States. In case one is out on a bond/bail, he/she might skip the court attendance. It is an offense, and a court may fine, commit one to custody, and cancel his/her bond/bail upon appearing. The court may also issue a warrant for the arrest of the person to be brought to court (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). In a federal case, if a defendant cannot post bail, the judge orders him/her remanded by the US Marshalls.
After the roll call, one has to be arraigned in court. The judge reads the charges against the defendant. The latter, in turn, has to indicate whether, in his/her opinion, he/she is guilty or not (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). One can also plead no contest to the charges presented what means that he/she does not agree with them. If one pleads guilty, the judge sets a sentencing date (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). The court can choose not to accept a guilty plea for closer attention to be paid to the case. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the judge sets the date for pre-trail motions. At this point, the court affirms the Constitutional right of the defendant to counsel as defined in the Sixth Amendment. In case a person cannot afford an attorney, the court appoints one for him/her (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). Furthermore, reading of the word of the offenses and ascertaining that the defendant understands them are also the parts of the Sixth Amendment that ensures the defendant knows the cause and nature of his/her accusation.
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Most felony trials do not move directly from arraignment to trial. The step in the pretrial stage is the preliminary examination. In South Carolina, a defendant has to request the court for a preliminary hearing at the arraignment; otherwise, the court presumes that he/she waived the right to such a hearing (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). For felonies, it should take place within 14 days of the arraignment for both the state and federal cases. During this session, the state or the US Attorneys have to establish the probable cause for the trial (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). The defense may not call the witnesses at this stage but may cross-examine the arresting officer. The prosecutor presents witnesses to convince the judge that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to the trail part of the case. If the prosecution does not convince the judge that the defendant has a case to answer, the judge can release the defendant (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). However, the prosecution can still recharge suspects by sending them to a grand jury.
There might be plea-bargaining before this stage. It means that the defense will not attempt to challenge the evidence that is to ascertain that the defendant has a case to answer (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). If the District Court judge or the Bench at the General Sessions affirms the plea bargain, it is the end of the case. If the defense and the prosecution cannot agree on a plea bargain, the case is placed on a trial calendar.
Regarding contingencies, in busy jurisdictions at both federal and state levels, the court may not be able to give this stage a serious consideration. The process is often treated as a formality (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). Consequently, the pre-trial conference is ineffective, what might lead to implicit injustice. On the other hand, making this process short also ensures that the state/federal prosecutors will utilize their resources better at the trial stage. In addition, the constitutional right under the Sixth Amendment are apparent during this part of the process. An attorney who the defendant retained or the one retained by the state represents the suspect in court at this stage (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). Furthermore, the right to confront the witnesses against him/her, stipulated in the Sixth Amendment, is present as the defense may cross-examine some of the witnesses (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). Nevertheless, at this moment, this right is limited.
A trial is the most important part of the case if the latter does not end at the pretrial conference. Trials can last as long as a year after the arraignment for felonies. Moreover, every person charged for felonies throughout the US has a right to a jury trial (Cole et al., 2015). It takes place at the US District Court or the Court of General Sessions if the case is regarded at the state level in South Carolina. Jury trials for felonies might take days or, in some cases, weeks (Cole et al., 2015). The jury has the duty to make a collective decision to pronounce the defendant either guilty or not guilty. The contingencies that can occur at this stage mostly connected with the jurors. In some cases, a juror can show an apparent disdain towards the defendant what can indicate that he/she cannot be impartial (Cole et al., 2015). Under such a circumstance as well as possible lying during jury selection, interaction with witnesses or doing research on the case, the judge can order a mistrial, what means that the defendant could be released.
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The constitutional rights of the defendants are affirmed at this point, too. The Sixth Amendment calls for a speedy trial before an impartial jury (Cole et al., 2015). While the trial calendar might make the actual trial take place in a year after the arrest, the process in accelerated under the Sixth Amendment that allows taking only a few weeks. Defendants also get a chance to ensure that the jurors are impartial by challenging the jurors and having some dismissed (Neubauer & Fradella, 2015). Furthermore, as the Sixth Amendment determines, the jurors have to be from the district and the state within which the defendant apparently committed the crime.
After the conviction, a person has a right to appeal the decision of the court. In South Carolina, the appeals are directed to the Court of Appeal of South Carolina. If one is dissatisfied with the decision of the Court of Appeal, he/she may refer to the State Supreme Court (Kuersten & Songer, 2014). However, for capital crimes, one can appeal directly to the South Carolina Supreme Court instead of going to the South Carolina Court of Appeal (Kuersten & Songer, 2014). If one is still dissatisfied with the decision of these courts, he/she may appeal to the US Supreme Court (Kuersten & Songer, 2014). However, since this court takes only a few cases from the states in a year, this appeal is not likely to be granted (Robertson, 2012). As for the federal appeals, they first reach the US Court of Appeals. For instance, in South Carolina, they are considered in the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Kuersten & Songer, 2014). One may appeal to the US Supreme Court in case of dissatisfaction with the first appeal. However, again, the US Supreme Court rarely grants the appeals (Kuersten & Songer, 2014). During the appeal process at both state and federal levels, the court reviews the record of the trial and examines the written submissions by the lawyers from both the prosecution and the defense (Kuersten & Songer, 2014). It is a strict bench trial. Still, the court can choose to hear attorneys from both sides.
There are few contingencies that might arise during this part of the trial. The appellant has to note that the US Supreme Court rarely grants appeals from the state (Robertson, 2012). Thus, for most defendants, the state Supreme Court or the US Circuit Court of Appeals is usually their last interaction with the criminal justice system. In addition, the appeal process affirms the rights to the due process of the law. The Fifth Amendment mandates that the federal government should not take the life, property or liberty of a person without the recourse to due process. The Constitution also decrees this process in the Fourteenth Amendment for the states (Robertson, 2012). While some state that the right to appeal is not the part of the due process, the fact is that courts have to use the appeal process at both and state and federal levels to affirm the rights of individuals to be respected.
System Effectiveness, Improvements, and Recommendations
As pertains to the criminal prosecutions, at both the state and federal level, the system seems to work well. However, such a protracted process has its faults. First, in the digital information era, the issue of jurors’ access to the information that is connected with their case on the Internet and in social media is on the rise (St. Eve & Zuckerman, 2012). If the defense alleges and proves the occurrence of the instance, it might result in a mistrial, what can release dangerous criminals, as a result. Moreover, sometimes, the police mismanage cases what forces the prosecutors to do plea bargains, after which violent felons get short or no prison sentences (Coe, Smith, & DeJong, 2015). As for defendants, the case might take up to a year to be heard because of the congestion of the trial calendars.
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To improve the process, the state and the Federal government should house the jurors for the entire trial to ensure they do not use Internet and cell phones (St Eve & Zuckerman, 2012). Second, better training on arresting for the police officers would reduce instances of mishandling the suspects and evidence (Coe et al., 2015). The congestion of the trial calendars and the subsequent time gap between the arraignment and trial can reduce if both states and the federal government could create more judicial districts and hire more state and federal judges.
Regarding recommendations, a reform of most laws that impose longer than the adequate sentences would be a good starting point. It will ensure that the criminals do not eventually spend in jail too long periods, what might make them even more hardened criminals (Coe et al., 2015). Videotapes of police interrogations of suspects and witnesses should be played for the jury. It is the only way to ensure that police do not involve in unethical practices during the investigation. The courts should also make sure that they do not treat unfair practices during the trial as “harmless errors.” In several instances, appellate courts upheld unfair practices as “harmless,” for example, in Maurino v. Jackson considered by the US Circuit Court of Appeals (Kuersten & Songer, 2014). By this standard, the need for the first trial is questionable: the jury might pronounce the defendant guilty before the trial if unfair practices are to be seen harmless.
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It is apparent that the felony criminal justice system guarantees most of the rights in the Constitution, but it also has few major faults. Both the state and federal system start with arrests, booking, and the application for bond or bail. Arraignment follows these processes. Between the trial and arraignment, there are the pre-trial procedures, including a pre-trial conference. The trial then occurs before a jury who are from the state and area in which the crime allegedly took place. If a defendant is dissatisfied with the outcome of the trial, he/she may appeal. In South Carolina, it is the Court of Appeals that considers these claims. If the appeal is not satisfying, the person should refer to the state supreme court. After this one, he/she may appeal to the US Supreme Court, but it rarely grants these appeals. In a federal case, after the district court conviction, one can appeal to the circuit appeals court and then the US Supreme Court. The latter rarely grants appeals in federal cases as well to avoid congestion. Mostly, the system works well with criminal prosecutions; however, it needs reforms to become better, more just and adequate.