A felony in the legal context refers to a serious crime as contrasted with a misdemeanor and infractions, which are less serious. A felony is usually punishable by a prison term of more than one year or, in some cases and in states that believe in the death penalty, by death. Some of the crimes that are classified as felonies include murder, extortion, and kidnapping. The distinction between felonies and misdemeanors is properly identified in three instances. Firstly, it is the issue of prison versus jail as a felony carries a potential sentence to state prison while a misdemeanor involves incarceration in a county or local jail. Secondly, the length of incarceration varies, whereby sentences for misdemeanors do not usually exceed one year while felonies usually involve a sentence of one year or more. Finally, the ramifications after conviction vary between a person with a conviction for a misdemeanor and the one with a felony conviction. For instance, an individual with a felony conviction may be denied the right to vote or even the serving on jury service.
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Under criminal law, criminal offenses are classified according to their seriousness; thus, statutes should define felonies and determine the available penalties applicable to the accused. It is as a consequence of this requirement that no one can be punished for a felony whose ingredients are not provided for in the law. Similarly, the law requires an effective and expeditious judicial process, which will lead to the determination of guilt or innocence of the accused. Regarding sentencing, no one can be punished for a felony by a penalty, which is not provided for in the statute. Consequently, a proper judicial process will only punish conduct where it constitutes a criminal offense at the time when it took place, and only those penalties that are legally applicable at the same date may be imposed.
The Judicial Process
The first step is the arrest of the defendant by the responsible authorities such as the police. It may be carried out in two main ways depending on a number of circumstances. Firstly, a defendant may be arrested where he/she is found during the act of committing a felony by the police officers. In this case, the accused is arrested and placed in police custody pending the results of a full investigation upon which he will be charged. Secondly, an arrest may be executed upon a warrant of arrest obtained by the police officers. A warrant of arrest is normally issued based on a complaint filed by an individual. A complaint is a written statement of the essential facts constituting the offense charged. The law requires the complaint to be made upon oath before any person authorized by law to administer oaths. Once the complaint has been filed, the police may proceed to arrest the individual in a question. The warrant will be given where it appears from the complaint that there is probable cause to believe that an offense has been committed and that the defendant committed it. The requirement of probable cause then ensures that the complaint is filed with an affidavit explaining the nature of the crime and the involvement of the accused. Probable cause is then provided as a safeguard against the arbitrary exercise of power by law enforcement officials who might act without proper cause. It is meant to protect the rights of the accused in the sense that he or she will only be arrested and his or her freedom interfered with in case there is a probable cause (Shelden, 2006).
The second step in the judicial process after the apprehension of the accused is a presentation before a magistrate court for the initial appearance. Upon arrest, the defendant is required to be taken before the court within the earliest opportunity possible. This requirement safeguards against unlawful arrest and detention in the sense the court will determine such issues in the initial appearance. In the initial appearance, the defendant is allowed to read the complaint or a copy of the complaint, and the magistrate is required to inform the defendant of a number of his rights in this initial appearance. Firstly, the accused should be informed of the nature of the charge against him/her and that he has a right to counsel and the right to a reasonable continuance in order to secure counsel. Where the accused is unable to employ counsel, he/she has the right to have counsel assigned to him without cost. Secondly, the accused should also be informed of the right to remain silent during the initial appearance. This is accompanied by the warning that anything he/she says will be used against him in the case. Thirdly, the accused should be informed of his right to a preliminary hearing in a felony case when his initial appearance is not pursuant to the indictment. This is where the defendant is also informed of his/her right to a jury trial where necessary and the necessity to demand the same in petty offense cases. Similarly, if the defendant has not been admitted to bail for a billable offense, the judge or magistrate must admit the defendant to bail according to the rules pertaining bailing (Mays & Ruddell, 2012). In the initial appearance, the requirement is that the defendant must be informed of all of his rights, responsibilities, and options available to him as pertaining to the felony in question. This is meant to protect the defendant as well as to ensure that he is fully informed of the charges against him.
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The third stage is the preliminary hearing stage. In every felony case, a defendant is entitled to a preliminary hearing where he does not waive that right. In case the accused waives the right to a preliminary hearing, the judge or magistrate shall order the accused bound over to the court of common pleas. However, if the accuse does not waive that right, he/she will be entitled to the same within a period not exceeding ten days after the arrest. At the preliminary hearing, the prosecution is required to establish plausible cause for the arrest of the accused. The prosecution will be able to call upon witnesses and introduce exhibits for the state. The judge or magistrate and the defense may be able to cross-examine the evidence presented by the prosecution. The defense will is also allowed to introduce evidence in favor of the accused; however, this evidence may be used against the accused by the prosecution. The defense may call upon the court to dismiss the case in case it is of the opinion that the prosecution has not proven its case against the accused and that it has not shown probable cause. In its ruling, the court may therefore either dismiss the case or find probable cause showing that the felony was indeed committed. The court shall order the defendant bound over to the court of common pleas if it finds probable cause. The requirement for a preliminary hearing is made for the purposes of safeguarding the constitutional requirements of due process before the law. The law requires the right to a fair, expeditious, and timely hearing for the establishment of facts.
The Grand Jury stage follows the preliminary hearing, during which the jury finally determines whether to prosecute or not. The judge of the court of common pleas shall order one or more grand juries to be summoned at such times as the public interest may require. The grand jury, therefore, consists of randomly selected members of the public who are chosen to participate in the legal process. It is composed of nine members, including the foreman and four other members who act as alternatives. The law allows both the prosecution and the defense to challenge the selection of the grand jury or an individual juror on the grounds that the latter was not selected, drawn, or summoned in accordance with the rules of procedure. During the process of the grand jury, the prosecution seeks to establish plausible cause that the accused indeed committed a felony. The prosecution calls witnesses and presents evidence summoned through subpoenas from the grand jury in order to seek an indictment of the accused. The grand jury shall return the indictment, usually called “the true bill,” in case it finds the probable cause; otherwise, it shall return no bill. The law requires that at least seven members of the jury should be available in order for the grand jury to conduct business (Krisberg, 2005).
The next stage after the grand jury is the arraignment where the law requires the accused must be presented before the magistrate for arraignment within not more than ten days. At this stage, the defendant is made aware of the charges against her/him, a trial date is fixed, and the schedule for motion hearings is determined. The defendant is also required to take a plea, which can be the one of guilty or not guilty. Where the defendant takes a plea of guilty, this shall be treated as the complete admission of the truth of the case against him. However, in a felony case where the defendant is not represented by counsel, the court shall not accept a plea of guilty from the defendant unless and until it ensures the defendant to be fully advised of all the available options. The defendant will also not be allowed to take a plea of no contest. The requirement for an arraignment is meant to safeguard the constitutional protection for the right to liberty and in accordance with the due process of the law.
After the arraignment, the trial stage follows where both the prosecution and defense counsels present their cases before the court. The trial is similarly heard before the jury of randomly selected individuals from the judicial district as well as overseen by the District Court Judge. Both the prosecution and defense present evidence and call witnesses. The proof’s burden lies on the prosecution, which is required to prove the case beyond all reasonable doubt. The jury will then be required to bring back a unanimous verdict based on the case presented before it. All the charges against the defendant will be dropped, and he/she will be released in case he/she is accounted to be not guilty. However, where he/she is found guilty by the jury, the pre-sentencing investigation will follow. Thus, the probation officer is required to collect data regarding the defendant as well as the victims of the crime and supply the same, further to a sentencing recommendation to the U.S. District Court Judge (Kadish, Schulhofer, Steiker, & Barkow, 2012). Once the trial is complete and the jury has returned a guilty verdict, the defendant undergoes the sentencing process, which is required to take place within two months after the guilty verdict enters. The sentencing may include committing to federal prison for a felony charge.
The law provides for the right of appeal to both the prosecution and the defendant. The appeals stage is meant to allow both parties to seek a better judgment in the case. In case of the prosecution appealing, it can only appeal the sentence, but may not appeal the verdict due to the provisions of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution on “Double Jeopardy.” The defendant is required to appeal to the State Court of Appeal stating the reason the original trial was in error and the need for it to be overturned. The State Court of Appeal will not be seeking new evidence but rather a reinterpretation of the facts presented at the original trial. The verdict will only be overturned where the Court of Appeal is of the opinion that it was manifestly unjust. Where the defendant has exhausted all his options at the state level, and he/she is still unsatisfied with the outcome, he/she may seek relief at the federal level. At the federal level, an appeal comes in the form of a federal writ of habeas corpus which an appeal challenging the state’s right to hold the defendant prisoner. It simply allows a person convicted in a state court to challenge that the state does not have the right to sentence the prisoner as his/her constitutional rights were violated. This provision is in line with the constitutional provisions of due process where a person must seek the proper administration of justice at the highest possible court in the land. In the US, the Federal Speedy Trial Act dictates that the defendant has a right to a trial within 70 days from his or her initial appearance in the U.S. District Court.
Changes and Reforms to Make the System Ethical and Fair
An overview of the criminal justice system for a felony charge presents a grim reality of the need for review and its subsequent reform in order to meet the 21st-century demands of the justice system. The procedures that are applied raise several questions that need and must be answered through the proper review of the justice system today. Firstly, there is the ethical concern of racial disparities for those arrested and incarcerated for felony offenses. Studies have proved that African Americans are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for felony offenses than any race in the US (Dressler, 2012). There is a need to assess this perception among law enforcement officers and the justice system at large in order to achieve the ethical standards required in the criminal justice system.
Secondly, there is the issue of time taken for the completion of the entire process from the initial appearance to the sentencing and appeals. Even though the Speedy Trial Act provides for a period of 70 days, the process has tended to take way longer and thus violating the rights of the accused. This can be resolved through the reduction of the stages or combination of the same between arrest and appeals. The judicial process has too many stages that can be combined with others in order to cut down on the time used. The issue of time management can be blamed for the increase in the backlog of cases. Thirdly, the system does not promote the early resolution of cases pre-charge. Early resolutions should, therefore, be taken that maximizes the opportunity to resolve matters before formal charges approval is complete. There is also the need for the provision of legal services, which facilitate the early resolution of cases.
In conclusion, there is paramount importance to ensure that the criminal justice system is able to meet the demands of the 21st Century concerning justice, fairness, and ethical administration of the rule of law. Today’s society is alert and aware of its rights that any derogation from the recognized constitutional provisions of whatever magnitude is capable of causing unforeseen consequences to the entire justice system.