Criminal Justice System: The Process You Will Go Through

Being charged with or arrested for a crime in Michigan can be confusing and emotionally traumatizing. Your entire life literally hangs in the balance.

That stress and trauma is made all the worse when you don’t really know what to expect from the complicated criminal justice system that now controls your fate, your freedom, and your future.

To help you better understand what happens now and next, here is a step-by-step explanation of how the criminal justice system of the United States government works. Knowing what is to come will help you stay calm so you can plan your steps and strategy in criminal court with your defense attorney.


The first thing you need to understand about all criminal justice systems is that they were put in place for the greater good of society as a whole.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an official government organization, the American criminal justice system has three main components, each with their own areas of responsibility.

The Police: Enforcing the Law

The DOJ says the major tasks of the police are to:

  • Selectively enforce laws
  • Ensure public safety
  • Arrest suspected lawbreakers
  • Crime prevention

This includes not only uniformed police officers and plainclothes detectives from local police departments, but members of all law enforcement agencies – the Sheriff’s Office, FBI, DEA, the Secret Service, etc.

The Criminal Courts: Trying the Accused

The next component of the justice system is the trial court that hears criminal cases. The court system is responsible for:

  • Ensuring the accused person receives a fair trial
  • Determining guilt or innocence

If the accused pleads guilty or is convicted by a jury of their peers, the judge decides their fate, guided by the sentencing guidelines set forth under Michigan law.

Corrections: Punishment and Rehabilitation

The third part of the criminal justice system in Michigan and the rest of the United States is the Department of Corrections. This includes jails, prisons, and the correctional officers and staff who work there, as well as probation officers and those who handle parole supervision of individuals granted conditional early release.

Per capita, there are more offenders sentenced to jail or prison in the United States than any other country.

The responsibilities of this department of the justice system include:

  • Removing offenders from society to reduce criminal activity
  • Rehabilitating offenders – altering their criminal behavior so they can re-enter society as law-abiding citizens

According to the Michigan DOC, prisoners within their jurisdiction are provided with a number of services to support their welfare and successful rehabilitation:

  • Medical care
  • Mental health services
  • Drug treatment
  • Educational opportunities
  • Self-improvement programs

The Role of Law Enforcement in the Justice System

The process begins when law enforcement officers believe that criminal activity has occurred. As part of their investigation, they will visit the crime scene, gather evidence, obtain search warrants, and interview witnesses, victims, and potential suspects.

Most criminal investigations in Michigan are conducted by local police departments. A responding police officer will make the initial report, and one or more detectives will follow up.

If the investigation verifies that a crime has most likely been committed, and if a suspect is identified, law enforcement brings their case to the District Attorney, who decides whether or not to file criminal charges.

When an Arrest is Made

If you are arrested in Michigan, here’s what you can expect:

  • You will be read your 5th Amendment rights. These are your Miranda protections/legal rights, such as the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.

As any defense attorney or criminal justice professionals will tell you, exercise your rights. If you are arrested or detained for questioning, NEVER speak to a police officer or any other member of law enforcement without your lawyer present.

  • You will be handcuffed and searched. The arresting officers will pat you down and search your person and immediate surroundings for weapons and evidence.
  • There may be a search warrant. If they are able to show probable cause that a crime has in fact occurred, a judge decides whether or not to issue a search warrant that allows them to search for and gather evidence from your home, business, property, or vehicles.
  • You will be booked. This means you will be processed into custody. They will take your information, your fingerprints, and your clothes and personal belongings.
  • You may be interrogated. Again, do not answer any questions without defense counsel present, even to defend yourself or “clear the air.”

About Federal Crimes and Jurisdiction

It is important to note that not all felony offenses are federal crimes. For example, robbery is a felony, but it is not considered a federal crime unless it also somehow involves the federal government. Robbing a convenience store is a felony, but robbing a bank is a federal crime.

This means that a federal agent law enforcement agency only investigates crimes that violate federal law.

The nature of the crime also determines which law enforcement agency is responsible for conducting the investigation. For example, the FBI handles terrorism cases, while the Secret Service is in charge of counterfeiting cases.

The Role of the Court in the Justice System

Once you are in custody, you will feel the full weight of the criminal justice system. From this point forward, everything you say or have said and everything that you do or have done will come under scrutiny. As these legal proceedings move forward, every word and action can potentially affect your criminal defense.

The Arraignment Process

Within just a few days after being arrested, you will appear before a judge to be arraigned. This is a brief, but important, part of the court process, so you are allowed to have your own private attorney with:

  • Reading of the charges. The judge will formally read the charges against you. If the charges are already known, most criminal justice practitioners will waive a formal reading to speed things up. You are legally entitled to receive a written copy of the charges.
  • Entering a plea. This is where the accused pleads guilty or innocent of the charges. Now is not the time to present evidence or argue your side of the case. Entering a plea during the arraignment only signals whether or not you intend to fight the charges.

Typically, criminal justice professionals recommend that you enter a plea of “not guilty,” even if you believe that you may be guilty.

Why Should You Always Plead Not Guilty at Your Arraignment?

First, at this early stage, your criminal defense attorney has not had time to thoroughly review the charges, conduct legal research, or look for any mistakes made by the police officer or law enforcement agent that arrested you.

Second, there has likely been no discovery as of yet, so there is no telling how strong the evidence is against you. Given time, your defense lawyers may be able to challenge the prosecution’s claims or even find exculpatory evidence that could clear you.

In either case, if you plead guilty now, you may be wrongly convicted.

Third, without that review and research, your criminal law defense attorney is not in a strong enough position to negotiate a deal or plea bargain in exchange for a plea of guilty or no contest. Pleading guilty at the arraignment takes away a powerful defense tool.

These are the reasons why the best criminal justice lawyers in Michigan advise pleading not guilty at arraignment. They then use their pre-trial prep time conducting legal research, calling rebuttal witnesses and experts, and using forensic science and other sufficient evidence to support your innocence.

Setting the Bail

Once you have entered your plea, the next step in the criminal justice process is for the judge to set the amount of your bail. This gets you out of jail so you don’t have to stay locked up while you are awaiting trial, and the financial obligation assures the court that you will show up.

As instructed by the Michigan Supreme Court, the judge is required to set the least restrictive conditions that reasonably insure that you will return for your future court date. To make that determination, they are supposed to consider multiple factors:

  • The threat you pose to public safety
  • Your prior criminal record
  • The seriousness of the current charges
  • The likelihood that you will be convicted
  • Your probable sentence if convicted
  • Your history of showing up to previous court dates
  • Your ties to and reputation within the community
  • Your employment status and financial resources
  • Your history of alcohol or drug abuse
  • Your mental condition

Depending on these factors and the judge’s decision, you could even be released on your own recognizance, with or without other conditions. Common conditions may include drug testing and treatment, a curfew, or monitoring.

In fact, it is recommended that if the other considerations are satisfactory, releasing someone on their own recognizance should be the default standard in the Michigan criminal justice system.

If the defendant is not ordered held in custody… the Court must order the pretrial release of the defendant on personal recognizance, or on an unsecured appearance bond.

Keep in mind, however, that the more serious the charge and the more the judge considers you to be a flight risk, the higher your bail will be.

When Bail is Denied

There are times, however, when the criminal justice process allows the judge to deny your bail and keep you incarcerated before your trial. These conditions are included in the Michigan State Constitution and state that bail may be denied when “the proof is evident and the presumption great.” The conditions are if you:

  • Have two previous violent crime convictions within the previous 15 years
  • Committed a violent felony while you were currently out on bail, probation, or parole for a previous violent felony
  • Are facing a current charge of murder or treason
  • Are facing a current charge of kidnapping, armed robbery, or criminal sexual conduct 1st degree, unless the Court is shown “clear and convincing evidence” that you won’t run or present a danger to anyone else

This is where a specialized lawyer with a criminal justice degree comes in. They know how to interpret the law and make a compelling argument that you should be granted bail. If you are free, you can continue to work and support your family, and you are in the best possible position to work with your lawyer and contribute to your own defense.

If you are denied bail, that is considered to be the continued “imprisonment of a presumptively innocent person.” The court must respect your constitutional right to a speedy trial. In other words, your trial must begin no more than 90 days after your bail was denied.

If your trial does not commence within 90 days, the Court must hold a new hearing and must offer you bail. Moreover, the Michigan Constitution states that your bail cannot exceed “an amount reasonably calculated to fulfill the purpose of assuring” your presence at trial.

This is how the right criminal justice professionals can make the system work for your benefit. You are either offered bail or receive an expedited trial date. One grants your freedom, the other gives the prosecution less time to prepare their case, while it gives you and your defense team a major strategic advantage.

The Pre-Trial Period: Preparation is Key

After you are released on bail, now is the time that the work really begins for you and your lawyer. How you use your time during the period between your arraignment and your trial will play a huge part in the eventual outcome of your experience with the criminal justice system.

The Discovery Phase

Your lawyer will be very busy, because, by law, the prosecution must share all the evidence they have against you with your criminal justice defense team. This means all physical and recorded evidence, all witnesses, all statements, and all experts’ reports – everything.

This is called discovery, and it is an invaluable defense tool in the criminal justice field. Since they have access to everything that the prosecution can use against you, your attorney can look for weaknesses in their argument and challenge every bit of evidence or testimony. They can call in their own experts – forensic science professionals, psychologists, etc.

If there are mistakes or inconsistencies, your criminal justice defense attorney may be able to have much of the evidence thrown out before trial, thereby weakening the case against you. If your case actually reaches trial, these challenges can establish a reasonable doubt in the mind of the jurors.

Pre-Trial Conferences

During this time, you and your lawyer will also meet several times, both alone to discuss the case and with the prosecution team to negotiate the outcome of your case.

Plea bargains and deals are an integral part of the criminal justice system in Michigan. District Attorneys and prosecutors are faced with an enormous backlog of cases, so they want to resolve as many as possible without going to trial to save time and taxpayer money.

Most especially, the prosecutors in local governments do not want to try cases that they have a possibility of losing. Since the District Attorney is an elected position, they are under enormous pressure to appear successful.

The more your criminal justice defense attorney can challenge evidence and witnesses and the more they can weaken the case against you pretrial, the more open the prosecution will be to make a deal.

The best Michigan defense lawyers understand the nuances of the complicated criminal justice system, and they know the weaknesses, strengths, and tendencies of the local governments’ prosecution team. This allows them to negotiate a much more favorable – and predictable – outcome than you may otherwise receive at trial.

Under a plea bargain, you may be able to have some charges thrown out, have others changed to reduced charges, pay less fines, serve a shorter prison sentence, or even be released with probation and community service.

If your lawyer advises you to reject the plea bargain offer, the criminal justice process will move forward and your case will proceed to trial.

The Criminal Trial

Court of Law Trial in Session: Portrait of Charismatic Male Public Defender Making Touching, Passionate Speech to Judge and Jury. Attorney Lawyer Protecting Client, Presenting Case.

Although most cases don’t go this far, the criminal trial is the most familiar step in the criminal justice system. However, most trials are nothing like what you see in movies and on TV. Defense attorneys, the prosecution, the judge, and the jury must all follow the rule of law.

Voir Dire: Jury Selection

The first step in the trial process is the selection of the jury. For your defense, this is one of the most important tasks performed by your criminal justice defense lawyer. Selecting the right jury of your peers may be the difference between conviction and acquittal.

A basic tenet of the criminal justice system is that a jury is supposed to be fair and impartial. To that end, both the prosecution and the defense will seek to disqualify any potential jurors who have a conflict of interest or biases. They do this by directly interviewing candidates, also known as voir dire – “to speak the truth.” Anyone who demonstrates that they are already potentially prejudiced may be stricken from the jury pool with cause.

The prosecutor and your defense attorney may both strike some potential jurors without giving a reason with a “peremptory challenge.” They may only do this a limited number of times, and they cannot base the challenge on a group characteristic, such as religion, ethnicity, or race.

A Bench Trial

In certain instances, your lawyer may recommend that you ask for a bench trial instead of a jury trial. This is when the presiding judge essentially takes the place of the jury. They listen to the arguments, view the evidence, hear the testimony of witnesses and experts, and then make a decision on your guilt or innocence.

While you have a constitutional right to a jury trial, you do not automatically have the same right to a bench trial. If the judge declines or if the prosecution challenges your request, it will be denied.

Advantages of a Bench Trial

The biggest reason to request a bench trial is that it speeds the entire criminal justice process up and resolves your case much quicker. It can be scheduled sooner, there is no jury selection process, and there is no need to give a jury special instructions.

This saves you time and money.

Another advantage to a bench trial is that the judge will adhere to the rules and the law. For better or worse, juries sometimes allow their emotions and preconceptions to influence their verdict. This is especially true in cases that are legally complex and that may hinge on technicalities that the average person may not fully understand.

Finally, unlike most jurors, the judge may be better at ignoring irrelevant information that does not apply to the case at hand. For example, if it is revealed that you have a history of marital infidelity, it could color the jury’s overall opinion of you and affect their eventual verdict, even if that information has nothing to do with your alleged crime, and even if the judge instructs them to disregard it.

Disadvantages of a Bench Trial

The major risk of a bench trial is that your fate will be decided by one person. If, based on the evidence, the judge decides that you are guilty, you will be convicted. In a jury trial, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, because they have to convince 12 jurors that you are guilty. You, on the other hand, only have to establish reasonable doubt in the mind of one juror.

A bench trial takes away that important strategic advantage.

Furthermore, in a bench trial, the judge is aware of ALL the evidence, including evidence that was dismissed as prejudicial or inadmissible. No matter how conscientious the judge may be, the knowledge of that evidence remains and may influence their decision.

The fact that the judge follows the law can work against you as well. In some cases, juries can be swayed by an emotional appeal. This is especially true in cases of juvenile justice, where juries may be sympathetic to younger defendants. A judge is more likely to put their personal feelings aside and rule strictly by the law.

Finally, some critics of bench trials question whether an elected judge can truly be neutral in a criminal case. Some judges may feel public pressure to convict.

Opening Statements

Once the jury has been empaneled, both sides will address the jurors and lay out an outline of the case that they intend to present. Although it is not the time to call witnesses or introduce evidence, the opening statement shapes the jurys first impression of you.

A defense attorney experienced in the criminal justice field knows how to capture the attention of the jury and how to present you and the situation in the best possible light. It is important that the individual jurors see you as a real human being instead of a criminal, and that they understand that no matter what the prosecution says, you are to be presumed innocent until actually proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Prosecution Makes its Case

During the criminal justice process, the State always presents its case first. The burden of proof lies with the prosecution, not the defense. The State must prove your guilt, not just accuse you. To support their case, they may introduce evidence, witnesses, testimony, reports, and even call upon the opinions of experts. Your attorney may object to anything that is improper under the law – leading questions or those that call for speculation, evidence that was not shared during discovery, etc.

When the prosecution calls a witness to the stand, they will ask them questions that supposedly support your guilt of the charges against you. Your defense attorney will be given the opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses for the prosecution to challenge their testimony and weaken the state’s argument.

The more holes your attorney can poke in the prosecution’s arguments, the more “reasonable doubt” they create.

When the prosecution rests their case, your criminal justice lawyer may request that the court make a directed verdict, also known as a judgment of acquittal. This motion is appropriate when it is evident that the State has not produced sufficient evidence to secure a conviction.

The Defense Makes its Case

After the prosecution rests, it is now the defense’s turn. Although most of the strategies are the same – calling witnesses and experts, introducing evidence, etc. – there is one difference that is a core principle of the criminal justice process.

While the prosecution must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, you are not required to prove your innocence. That can make all the difference.

Here is an example of how that plays out in practice:

If you are accused of a crime, the State must establish with provable facts that a law was broken, the specifics of the crime, and that you were the one who committed it.

The defense, on the other hand, only needs to establish a reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors about any of the prosecution’s allegations. Your attorney does not need to name any other suspects – they only need to support the argument that it was not you.

However, if you are claiming that you are not guilty due to entrapment, self-defense, or insanity, you will have to prove that claim.

Another advantage that the defense has is that now that the prosecution has presented its case, the defense can call witnesses and experts and introduce evidence specifically to counter the State’s claims. In other words, they can attack the weakest parts of the prosecution’s case.

Closing Arguments

After the defense rests its case, each side will be able to make their closing arguments and summarize the case they have presented. They will also point out the flaws in the other side’s case.

An experienced criminal justice trial lawyer is meticulous and will present to the jury a point-by-point review of each way the prosecution has failed to prove their case. This is the last opportunity to make an impression on the jury, so a compelling closing argument is a must.

Jury Charge

Before deliberations begin, the judge will issue instructions to the jury. These are legal rules governing how jurors should behave while deciding the case. The goal is to ensure a fair trial.

In the state of Michigan, the criminal justice system has adopted “pattern jury instructions” – a standardized model of the instructions that a judge should give during a criminal trial. The models are specific to the type of crime, with blank spaces to enter the facts of the case.

For example, the standard set of jury instructions for drug offenses reads:

(1) The defendant is charged with the crime of illegally manufacturing [(state weight) of a mixture containing] a controlled substance, ______________________. Manufacturing means producing or processing a controlled substance. It is alleged in this case that the defendant manufactured _________________________________ by [list specific acts]. To prove this charge, the prosecutor must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

(2) First, that the defendant manufactured a controlled substance.

(3) Second, that the substance manufactured was _______________________.

(4) Third, that the defendant knew [he / she] was manufacturing _______________.

[(5) Fourth, that the substance was in a mixture that weighed (state weight).]

[(6) Fifth, that the defendant was not legally authorized to manufacture this substance.]

[(7) Sixth, that the defendant was not (preparing / compounding) this substance for (his / her) own use.]

Why are jury instructions so important to your defense?

First, they very clearly give the jurors an exact standard that must be met in order to return a guilty verdict. If reasonable doubt has been established on even one of these points, the only possible verdict is “not guilty.”

Second, if there are any errors in these instructions, or if any members of the jury improperly disregard them, and you are subsequently wrongfully convicted, you may have grounds for an appeal.

Jury Deliberations and Verdict

After receiving instructions, the jury will retire to deliberate and try to come to a unanimous verdict. They will have access to all of the evidence and testimony given during the trial, and they can take as long as necessary to come to a decision. There is no set time limit.

In most cases, the jury will be free to go home each night, although they are instructed not to discuss the details of the case with anyone and not to do any research on their own. This ensures that they are not unduly influenced by any outside factors.

In fact, if you are convicted and it is later discovered that a juror improperly discussed the case with an outside person, that they conducted independent research, or that they read newspaper articles or watched news programs about the case, it could be grounds for an appeal.

If the jury is able to reach a unanimous verdict of “guilty” or “not guilty,” they notify the judge and the verdict is read in court.

If, however, the jurors cannot all agree on the same verdict and are hopelessly deadlocked, even after being admonished multiple times by the judge to keep trying, the result is a hung jury.”

What Happens When There is a Hung Jury?

A hung jury means the judge has no choice but to declare a mistrial. Legal proceedings are halted immediately, the jury is released, and this trial is over.

However, this does not mean that your charges are dropped, your case is dismissed, or that you have won. In fact, it actually has set the stage for another trial.

This is costly for both sides, in terms of both time and money. Rather than start all over again at taxpayers expense, prosecutors often offer a more favorable plea bargain deal. In some cases, the State may even dismiss the charges instead of retrying the case.

If You are Acquitted

If the jury returns a verdict of “not guilty,” that means the prosecution failed to prove the charges against you beyond a reasonable doubt. The case is closed.

Under the Fifth Amendment, you cannot be retried for the same offense. This is known as the “double jeopardyclause.

However, keep in mind that although you cannot be tried again within the criminal justice system, you still may face lawsuits in civil court, where you bear the burden of proving your innocence.

If You are Convicted

If you are convicted of a crime in Michigan, the judge will determine an appropriate punishment, subject to the sentencing guidelines prescribed by the State. Although there are some crimes with mandatory punishments, in most cases the judge has quite a bit of discretionary leeway.

With that said, even though the sentencing guidelines for most crimes are not mandatory, judges tend to follow them. In fact, a judge must have “substantial and compelling reasons” to deviate from the recommended sentencing ranges, and they must even state those reasons on the record.

Finally, if the minimum sentence imposed by the judge is longer or more severe than is appropriate, the court must advise you, in writing and on the record, of your legal right to appeal that sentence.

The Sentencing Points System in Michigan

The guidelines assign a certain amount of points for each crime.The judge can glance at a chart and see the appropriate sentencing range. Some factors can increase the assigned points and, therefore, your sentence – prior convictions, use of a weapon, predatory behavior, habitual criminal activity, etc.

Although the Michigan point system is an invaluable tool for the court, they can seem complicated and confusing for someone without a criminal justice degree. This is why having a lawyer who specializes in criminal defense is so important.

An effective defense is more than just trying to keep you from being convicted. The top Michigan criminal lawyers also ensure that even if you are convicted, you still have the best possible outcome – the shortest appropriate sentence, the lowest fines, and the most generous use of non-prison alternatives, such as drug treatment, community service, probation, and or a suspended sentence.

Pre-Sentencing Investigation Report

Under Michigan law, probation officers must provide the court with a report outlining the convicted person’s background, criminal history, and a prognosis for their readjustment into society. This report must be submitted to the judge, the prosecution, and the defense at least two days prior to sentencing.

The PSIR is an extension of your due process rights. It is your opportunity to review the information that the judge will use to determine your sentence. It is also when your criminal justice defense attorney can point to any extenuating circumstances or raise objections.

The PSIR may also include a victim impact statement, and the victim may address the court before sentencing.

Post-Trial Motions

The criminal justice process isn’t over just because you have been convicted. An experienced defense attorney has many options after the trials, especially if there is reason to believe that any of the following occurred:

  • Perjury by a witness
  • Misconduct or bias by a juror
  • Prosecutor misconduct
  • Judicial misconduct, bias, or conflict of interest
  • New evidence has been discovered
  • Violation of your constitutional rights
  • Discovery of new evidence

Each of these is grounds for your criminal justice defense lawyer to file a motion for an appeal or even a new trial. If there were mistakes or improprieties, then the fight isn’t over yet.

Blank Law, PC: Your Advocate in the Criminal Justice System

As we have thoroughly demonstrated, the Michigan criminal justice process is long and complicated. There are many crucial stops along the way where one wrong step can affect your future and your freedom. This is why you need an experienced and expert Michigan criminal defense lawyer by your side.

Blank Law, PC is your first and best criminal defense resource when you need a criminal defense law firm that will fight for your rights.

Founding attorney Nicole Blank Becker has decades of experience in the Michigan criminal justice system, as both a former prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer. Her unique experience, skill set, and impeccable reputation within the legal community sets her apart and gives you the best chance of beating any criminal charges you are facing.

Likewise, Attorney Christopher Coyle has practiced law in Michigan for 30 years, including 28 years as a Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor. Before joining Blank Law, PC, his most recent position was Deputy Chief of the Wayne County Prosecutor Office.

Due to their experience as prosecutors, both Nicole and Christopher can anticipate the prosecution’s strategy and next moves, then counter with the most effective criminal defense strategies possible.

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