The following Glossary of Terms is a limited resource on the criminal
justice system and the political process. The glossary
offers information about the judicial
process for defendants as well as a sense of the initiative
process for citizens. Terms are hyperlinked from all criminal justice
and political process terms that appear elsewhere on this site.
A sentence that serves as an alternative to incarceration. In many states, alternative sentencing efforts
include required community service, drug and alcohol rehabilitation,
psychiatric rehabilitation, and some educational or vocational programs.
Every state in the US has some form of "alternative" punishments.
Following a conviction,
the convicted person may apply for his or her case to be brought
before a higher court in order to "appeal" the previous judgment
of the case. All states allow some kind of appeals process, but
it varies from state to state. Most allow two appeals: one "as of
right" to an intermediate appeals court, and the second as a "discretionary"
appeal to the state's highest appeals court. The second appeal is
called discretionary because the court can decide whether or not
to take the case. The intermediate appeals court has no choice about
taking the first appeal.
A legal judgement, by a jury or judge, that a defendant is not guilty
of the crime charged against him or her.
The appearance before the court by a person charged, in which the
person is officially advised of the charges against them. They are
asked to respond by pleading guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere
(meaning that they do not plead at all).
The detainment of a person by the authority of the law in which
they are not free to leave the custody of the police. A person is
arrested when there is "probable cause" to believe that person has
committed a crime.
Initiative (Initiative Process for Citizens)
ballot initiative is a process by which citizens can mobilize to
place an issue of public concern on the ballot for a popular vote.
The ballot is the sheet of paper or electronic device that is used
by citizens to vote for politicians and initiatives. In California
"Three Strikes and You're Out"
was a ballot initiative that got on the ballot through the initiative
process. The process of getting an initiative on the ballot often
involves 1) getting a petition signed with a certain number of signatures,
2) lobbying in the state legislature
by citizen interest groups, 3) the creation of a referendum
or bill to be voted on, and 4) the ratification
of the state's law. Organizations like think tanks and citizen advocacy
groups play an important role in the background research and writing
required to get a ballot initiative passed.
As of May 1999,
the constitutions of 26 states
authorize lawmaking by the electorate itself. In 21 of these states,
citizens may initiate or enact ordinary legislation. In these and
three additional states (Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico), voters
can require the legislature to refer enactments to the electorate
for approval or rejection. Finally, in two more states (Florida
and Illinois) the voters' rights are limited to the initiation of
state constitutional amendments.
A legal judgement, based on the decision of a jury or judge, that
a defendant is guilty of a crime in which they were tried in court.
Laws written by legislatures at the federal
and state level that determine crimes that are punishable by incarceration,
fines or other penalties.
A serious violent
or non-violent crime (contrasted
with a misdemeanor) which is punishable
by more than one year in prison, or in some cases, by the death
penalty. For example, murder, extortion and kidnapping are felonies.
Most drug offenses and residential burglaries are felonies. However,
the criminal code for felonies varies
slightly from state to state.
A legal proceeding
in which arguments and witnesses are heard by a judicial officer
or body. Trials are a particular form of hearing.
There are also pre-trial hearings (for instance, when a court decides
whether or not a confession was given "voluntarily") and post-trial
hearings (for instance, the sentencing hearing). All states have
hearings, although the precise subject matter and timing of hearings
vary from state to state.
A formal document of charges issued by a prosecutor
to a grand jury the jury that examines accusations against
persons charged with crime and makes formal charges on which the
accused persons are later tried. If the grand jury believes that the charges would lead to a conviction (if proved by the prosecutor), they issue an indictment.
The imprisonment of someone, by a judge or jury,
who has been charged and convicted of
Process for Criminals
Though the judicial process varies slightly from
state to state, there are certain procedures that are consistent
throughout all states. The judicial process for defendants happens
in the following chronological order: 1) Arrest,
2) Arraignment, 3) Bail Hearing,
4) Indictment or Preliminary Hearing,
5) Plea Negotiations, or Out of Court Settlement
(in civil cases only) 5) Trial, resulting in Conviction, Acquittal
or Mistrial 7) Sentencing, and 8) Appeal.
The process by which laws are written, voted on,
and enacted at the state and federal level. One house of the legislature
(either the Senate or the House of Representatives) considers a
bill, first in the committee and later on the floor of the house.
The approved bill is then sent to the chief executive (the President
or the Governor) who can either sign the bill into law or veto it.
The legislature can override a veto by a supermajority vote (usually
The process by which citizens and advocacy groups
can directly represent their interests and political platforms in
front of legislative bodies in states.
Mandatory Sentencing requires that, after a conviction,
a judge sentence the offender according to a predetermined sentence
as defined by law. Mandatory sentencing requires that the judge
apply a "formula" according to the crime committed. "Three
Strikes"-type laws are, in many cases, mandatory sentences,
because they require courts to impose pre-determined "fixed"
sentences for habitual offenders.
A crime, not as serious as a felony,
for which the punishment is imprisonment for one year or less in
a jail or local facility and/or a fine. Petty theft and certain
drug offenses (possession of a small amount of marijuana without
intent to sell) are examples of misdemeanors. However, the criminal
code for misdemeanors varies slightly from state to state.
Crime (Non-violent Offender)
A misdemeanor or felony
in which the offender has not committed or threatened an act of violence
against another person. Some non-violent crimes are misdemeanors,
i.e. petty theft, possession of small amounts of drugs, or
solicitation of prostitution. Other non-violent crimes, such as
embezzlement or fraud, are felonies. What is considered a violent
or non-violent crime generally varies
from state to state.
The conditional release of a prisoner from imprisonment
into legal custody. The parole board makes risk assessments and
oversees the conditional release of prisoners to the public. The
prisoner must report to a parole officer as defined by the parole
board. A person is eligible for parole after serving a predetermined
amount of time. The parole board will grant parole to an eligible
prisoner who presents a low risk of committing another crime after
release. Good behavior while in prison is one indicator of such
a low risk. 15 states have abolished
parole in the last 20 years.
Prosecutors often engage in plea negotiations to obtain a conviction
in a criminal case, either to avoid a time-consuming trial
or because they lack the evidence to convict
the defendant on the arrest charge. A plea
agreement generally involves the defendant pleading guilty to a
specified offense (often less serious than the original charge)
and may also include a sentencing recommendation by the prosecutor
to the judge.
response to the first "Three
initiative, Richard Rainey, a former Contra Costa Sheriff and Republican
Assembly member, introduced a bill that proposed a version of "three-Strikes,"
which would have been tougher on
and more lenient on non-violent
For instance, unlike the current law, it required that the third
strike triggering a mandatory
of 25-years to life had to be a violent
The bill was never voted on.
The process of formally changing, approving, and
sanctioning a law.
A measure submitted to popular vote from a state
legislature or from a popular initiative.
The process of getting a referendum on a state ballot is called
the initiative process. If it is a popular
initiative, it usually requires that a lobby
group petition for a number of signatures and then make a formal
presentation to the state legislature. Not all states have the referendum
process. List of states
that allow some form of referendum or initiative process.
(Out of Court)
The act of awarding or giving possession of money,
an estate or other income to a victim, often as a way to avoid court
and civil or criminal charges.
Strikes and You're Out"
The "Three Strikes and You're Out" Law for three-time
offenders was first implemented in 1993 in Washington State. California
soon followed in 1994 with a broader version of the law. Since,
"three strikes"-type laws have been implemented with wide variations
in 24 states. The California law requires that when a person is
convicted of three felonies, he or she must
serve a mandatory fixed sentence
of 25 years to life usually without parole.
However, what is considered a "strike" and what is considered "out"
varies significantly from state to state. For example, in Washington
state, all of the strikes must fall under specific violent
crimes that are defined by the law. But in California, only
the first two crimes must be "three-strike" crimes, but the third
can be any felony. In addition, some states
have variations on "three-strikes" laws that include "two-strikes"
penalties and "four-strikes" penalties. For example, Montana requires
mandatory life in prison without parole for two violent
offenses, such as deliberate homicide or aggravated kidnapping,
as defined in their criminal code. Not
states require life in prison without parole
in their "three-strikes"-type laws. (Note: the federal government
has passed a "three-strikes" law of its own. It applies to people
who are charged with a federal crime, to be tried in the federal
The formal process before a judge or judge and jury
of proving the guilt or innocence of a person suspected of committing
a crime. A trial leads either to the conviction
or acquittal of a defendant. A mistrial
can be declared in some cases when a jury fails to agree unanimously
on a verdict or when proper procedures have been violated. In these
cases, a new trial is scheduled. A trial by jury must be available
to a defendant who is charged with a "serious" crime (defined as
a crime punishable by more than six months incarceration).
For "petty" crimes, the trial can take place in front of a judge
rather than a jury. However, a defendant might waive a jury trial
and request a bench trial even when charged with a serious crime.
Crime (Violent Offenders)
A serious felony that includes real or threatened
violence toward a person. Violent crimes include murder, rape, and
in some states, certain drug trafficking offenses and residential
burglary. In many states, "three strikes"
type laws are for violent habitual offenders only, while in other
states, all felonies are punishable under
This glossary was created in May of 1999 from a compendium of sources
including two online sources, The
Missouri Victim Assistance Network
Talk: Everybody's Law Library,
as well as print sources from the National Conference of State Legislatures
and Michael J. Moore's The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics and