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How Does the Criminal Justice System Work?

Where an individual’s lawful arrest or detention is concerned, the criminal justice system is responsible for setting out rules and principles for which justice can be served on a case-to-case basis. 

Aimed to protect life and maintain order in society, the criminal justice system has witnessed multiple reforms by introducing new laws and precedents and overruling outdated principles to reach a fair decision in each case. 

New Hampshire’s negligible % crime rate of 1.3% is the second-lowest violent crime rate for a town in America – thanks to the exceptional criminal justice system and 199 criminal justice agencies. 

Despite this, 72% of surveyed Americans predict that crime rates will increase in 2023 instead of plummeting. 

The procedure through which the modern criminal justice system assesses and resolves a crime involves the expertise of four fundamental institutions of law: The Police, the Prosecution, the Courts, and Corrections, but many other institutions, bodies, and agencies are involved in fairly bringing a case to its end. 

Those interested in learning how the modern criminal justice system initiates, conducts, and concludes criminal proceedings can learn more through literature and e-learning resources.

Being the 7th most popular major nationwide in 2021 with 113,121 degrees awarded, you can even pursue a career in criminal justice and corrections by applying for an associates degree criminal justice online.

However, if you simply want an overview of the main institutions of the criminal justice system, here’s how these bodies systematically operate to prove an individual innocent or guilty of a crime: 

  • The Police

The Police and Law Enforcement agencies are responsible for maintaining law and order in communities. Doing so efficiently requires them to look out for individuals involved in unlawful activities or linked to crimes and gather evidence to support their arrest. 

The Police perform two fundamental tasks in the criminal justice system: Investigation and Arrest. These are carried out in the following way: 

Investigation: When a crime is reported, a Police investigation begins with immediate effect. During the investigation, the Police have the power to question witnesses or those related to the victim, search or inspect a person or property if the probable cause, i.e., the standard of proof required for a search or inspection, can be met, and take suspects into custody for further questioning. 

Since questioning, searching, and seizing during a crime investigation infringe on a person’s liberty and personal space, many constitutional rights protect suspects from abuses and overreaching by law enforcement, such as the Miranda advisement and the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. 

Even the requirement of probable cause is a form of protection from unnecessary custodial confinement of individuals. 

Arrest: In custody, if the Police have probable cause that a suspect is responsible for committing the crime in light of the evidence, identification by witnesses, and the suspect’s statements, the suspect can be arrested and held until court proceedings begin. 

At this point, the suspect is now a defendant or accused, and protection of their rights is exercised under the Sixth Amendment, which includes the right to a public trial without unnecessary delay, the right to a lawyer, the right to an impartial jury, and the right to know who their accusers are and the nature of the charges and evidence against them. 

  • The Prosecution

Following the lawful arrest of a defendant, the decision of whether to prosecute them or not lies with the district attorney. Prosecutors consider many factors, such as how grave the offense is, how strong the evidence is, and whether any procedural impropriety is present when deciding to press charges. 

Where a capital offense is concerned, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure state that an indictment is necessary. An indictment is either carried out by a grand jury or by filing information by the prosecutor, depending on a state-to-state basis. 

While the procedure and specifications of these methods vary, the common ground to initiate an indictment is probable cause, without which no charges can be pressed on the defendant. 

  • The Courts

Once a defendant has been indicted, the matter is transferred to the Courts, who shall decide the defendant’s fate following a fair trial. The defendant may choose a lawyer or attorney themselves or be provided with a court-appointed counsel if they cannot afford the former. 

Before initiation of the trial, a procedure known as Arraignment is conducted by the judge whereby the defendant provides a guilty or not guilty plea to the court. This is where plea-bargaining occurs, where a defendant agrees to enter a guilty plea in exchange for a charge or sentence reduction by the prosecutor. 

Subsequently, the trial commences before a judge or jury, or both. To promote fairness, the jury must be an impartial and diverse group of individuals who must refrain from letting personal biases and vendettas affect their decision. 

The defense attorney and prosecutor present opening statements before the judge and jury, following which witness statements are received, and cross-examination of the defendant, victim, and witnesses begins.

The standard of evidence for a criminal conviction is proving the defendant as guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Any doubt based on reason or rationality shall result in the accused being acquitted. If the accused is found guilty, the process of Sentencing begins. 

The judge must punish the defendant for their crime as the judge deems fit. Sentencing commonly includes fines, probation, jail or prison time, or a mixed sentence of incarceration and community service. 

Once the accused has been sentenced, they can appeal the decision in appellate courts for a retrial or dismissal. 

  • Corrections 

Suppose an accused has been sentenced to a Corrections facility. In that case, they must serve the term stated in their sentence in a local, state, or federal correctional authority such as a county jail or federal prison. 

However, to reduce the number of inmates staying in corrections, most are released before their terms through parole and pardon or simply after completing their maximum mandated sentence. 

Furthermore, correctional facilities have witnessed many reforms to discourage the entrance of inmates into correctional facilities, where they are often subjected to cruelty and abuse. 

Recently, New Hampshire passed legislation to implement programs like drug courts offered as alternatives to imprisonment and introduced a new bill allowing prisoners serving a suspended sentence to petition to reduce the sentence. 

If passed, the bill would help reduce the prison population on a great scale.


Best described as a multi-layer filter through which cases are sieved, the modern criminal justice system operates in a manner that assigns punishments equivalent to the seriousness of the crime committed. 

Despite the consistent efforts of lawmakers, legislators, and the judiciary in making the system foolproof, loopholes still exist through which the outcomes of cases can be reversed. 

A thorough understanding of the criminal justice system can help American citizens know their constitutional rights and privileges if they ever find themselves at odds with the law!

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