Bookmark This Page: How The Criminal Justice Process Works

The criminal justice process can be baffling. Below is an explanation of the steps that take place within criminal cases. Bookmark this page for future reference.


Law enforcement will investigate an allegation of crime, unless they witness the actual events, such as stopping someone for speeding and finding drugs in the car. The police or prosecutor will often try to interview you prior to charges being filed. Always check with your lawyer before talking to anyone about your case.


At the time of your arrest, the police and prosecutors rarely have all the evidence needed to convict you. The police might say they want to "help" you. Do not discuss your case with anyone without first talking to your criminal defense attorney and getting the benefit of your attorney's advice.

Arraignment, Federal Court

The U.S. Pretrial Services Agency is the federal agency that will be interviewing you to prepare a report to the court.

This report will be used to determine whether you will be eligible to post bond. If so, the agency will supervise the conditions of your pretrial release. Anything you say during these interviews may be used against you later in determining a sentence if you are convicted.

A copy of the report, including your responses, will be provided to the prosecutor, as well as to the court. You are entitled to speak with an attorney before being interviewed. Like most items discussed on this page, get the benefit of legal advice before making decisions.

Arraignment, State Court

There will be a brief appearance before a judge, a plea of not guilty will be entered, and in most cases a jury trial will be requested. If you later want to waive your right to a jury trial and the prosecutor has no objection, you may have a trial before a judge.


From this point on, your attorney will be gathering the facts and law necessary to advise you of the strength of the prosecution's case, any defenses you may have, the possible sentence you may face if you are convicted, and whether the attorney feels your interests are better served by a trial or a plea of guilty to one or more of the charges.

Each case is different. Complicated cases take more time. Your attorney will be doing whatever is necessary to prepare your case as quickly as possible. A complete investigation may take several weeks or months. Taking the time necessary to prepare your case properly may spare you from years in prison.

Your attorney can best advise you only after your case has been fully investigated and it has been determined what level of punishment the government is seeking.

Your attorney will then assist you in making the final decisions on matters, which might affect your constitutional rights. You will be kept fully informed by letter or personal visit as your case progresses. If you do not understand any matters in your case, write or call your attorney and your questions will be fully answered.

While the law provides only limited access to the prosecutor's evidence against you, it is important for your lawyer to find out as much as possible about your case.

To the extent possible, your attorney will take certain steps (called discovery) to learn more about the prosecutor's case against you. It is important to know the witnesses who are expected to be used against you and to obtain copies of any law enforcement reports or other documents that may be available in your case.

Your attorney likely will check with the prosecutor's office to get a feeling for the prosecutor's opinion of your case.

At the James Law Firm, whenever we talk to a prosecutor or an adverse witness, we do not disclose the confidential information that you have told us or reveal any confidential strategy or work product of our investigation.


Before or after investigating your case, your attorney may feel it is appropriate to file a motion, which may be heard before or at trial.

Motions, for example, might:

  • Request that evidence or statements not be admitted at your trial
  • Allege that the government has failed to provide you with your rights, such as the right to a speedy trial

Your attorney must be involved in all matters before the court, and you should never file your own motions without fully discussing the proper procedures with your defense attorney.

Pretrial Hearing

If any motions are filed in your case, they will most likely be heard at the pretrial hearing. Also, if you decide you want a trial before a judge (instead of a jury), you will waive your right to a jury trial at this time.

Plea Bargaining

Your right to a trial by jury is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Any decision to plead guilty, accept a plea agreement, waive trial by jury or anything else to give up any constitutional right is exclusively your decision to make.

Your attorney will explain your options and give their recommendation on how to proceed. However, the final decision is yours.


In practice, there are many things that can extend the time of a trial. Much of what happens in the trial process involves strategic decisions of how and when issues should be presented. Your attorney will keep you informed of why they have made certain decisions, but you must have confidence in your attorney to allow these decisions to be theirs alone.

There are still many decisions which you will need to make. For example, you must decide whether you want a trial by jury or a trial by judge. In a jury trial, 12 people will listen to the witnesses and the evidence presented, and they will make the decision of guilty or not guilty. Their decision must be unanimous. If the jury finds you guilty, they will set your punishment.

In a trial by judge (bench trial), the judge will listen to the witnesses and the evidence presented, and he or she will make the decision of guilty or not guilty. If the judge finds you guilty, he or she will determine your punishment.

Another decision is whether to testify on your own behalf. No one can force you to testify, and the fact that you did not testify cannot be considered in determining whether you are guilty or not. The prosecutor cannot even mention that you did not testify.

These are just a few of the decisions that you will have to make if your case goes to trial. There are many other considerations that you will discuss with your attorney during the course of your case. Stay informed, and do not be afraid to ask questions.

Appeals In A Criminal Case

After a judge or jury returns a verdict of guilty, you may want to appeal. An appeal in a criminal case is not a new trial; it is a review of the evidence presented at trial and of the law applied to the case.

To begin an appeal, your lawyer will file a notice of appeal with the clerk of court. The notice of appeal says you want to appeal from your conviction and that you have requested the transcript of the trial from the court reporter. There is a charge per page, and typically a deposit is required.

In Arkansas, you have 30 days from the entry of the judgment in a criminal case to file a notice of appeal. In federal court, the deadline is 10 days. After the notice of appeal is filed, the court reporter will prepare the transcript of the trial and provide it to the court clerk. The court clerk then finishes preparing the record and notifies the attorney that it is ready. This record must be filed with the Arkansas Supreme Court or Arkansas Court of Appeals within 90 days of the filing of the notice of appeal, unless an extension is granted.

Once the record has been filed, the attorney will be given the deadlines for filing the briefs. After the briefs from both the defense and the state have been filed, the matter will be submitted to the court for its decision. It would not be unusual for an appeal of a criminal case to take more than one year from the filing of your notice of appeal until a decision is made.

The Arkansas Supreme Court or Arkansas Court of Appeals can do one of three things in a criminal appeal:

  • The case is affirmed, meaning that there was no serious error and the actions of the trial court were proper.
  • The case is reversed and dismissed, meaning there was serious error and that due to the actions of the trial court the case cannot be retried.
  • The case is reversed and remanded, meaning that there was serious error and that due to the actions of the trial court, the case must be tried again.

The issues raised in an appeal of a criminal case may include sufficiency of the evidence, which is an argument that there was not enough evidence presented at trial to prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In deciding this issue, the Arkansas Supreme Court and Arkansas Court of Appeals do not decide who is telling the truth; only the judge or jury can do that. Rather, the court reviews the evidence presented in the light most favorable to the state of Arkansas to determine whether the judge or jury could have reached the conclusion it did.

The other grounds for appeal in a criminal case are based on the court denying a motion filed by your attorney or the court overruling an objection that was made by your attorney at trial.

You can look at decisions in criminal cases made by the Arkansas Supreme Court and the Arkansas Court of Appeals by visiting.

Contact The James Law Firm

At nearly every stage of a criminal prosecution, it is important to consult with or be represented by an experienced criminal attorney. The James Law Firm in Little Rock is the biggest criminal law firm in Arkansas, with a full-service criminal defense team to handle all aspects of your case. If you have been investigated by the police or charged with a crime, contact The James Law Firm.