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Criminal Justice System: How It Works

The criminal justice process is complex, and often can be confusing to persons not familiar with criminal law.  This arrest-to-sentence guide and legal glossary are designed to explain and clarify the criminal justice process in New York County.

New York City Criminal Court

What is the function of the Courts?

The Courts are charged with ensuring the fair application of the law. Judges preside over all legal proceedings in court.

Almost all Manhattan cases—felonies, misdemeanors, and violations—are arraigned in the Criminal Court of the City of New York.  Arraignment Parts are staffed in Criminal Court seven days a week, 365 days a year, both day and night. After arraignment, Criminal Court handles only misdemeanors and violations.  The Supreme Court of the State of New York handles felony cases after indictment.  (Note: in New York State, the highest appellate court is the Court of Appeals, not, as one might expect from the name, the Supreme Court.)

What is an arraignment?

In New York City, defendants are usually brought before a judge of the Criminal Court of the City of New York for arraignment within 24 hours of arrest.  Once the case has been docketed by the Court and the complaint and the defendant's criminal history are ready, the defendant is produced for arraignment in Criminal Court.

At arraignment in Criminal Court, the defendant is informed of the charges against him and a bail determination is made.  He is also given various notices, including: whether the case will be considered by a Grand Jury; whether he made statements to the police; and whether there was an identification by witnesses.  If the defendant cannot afford an attorney or obtain one in time, one is appointed prior to the arraignment.

If the defendant is charged with a violation or a misdemeanor, he may plead guilty at arraignment.  In some cases, a defendant charged with a felony is offered a misdemeanor plea at arraignment.  Many defendants plead guilty at arraignments, though guilty pleas also can be entered at later stages in the case. The defendant can plead guilty to all of the charges in the complaint, or to less than all of the charges or to a lesser charge when offered by the Assistant District Attorney.  If a defendant pleads guilty, the judge delivers the sentence.  With a felony, where there is no misdemeanor offer, a defendant is not asked to enter a plea at criminal court arraignment.

What is Bail and How is it Set?

Bail is collateral, in the form of cash or bond, that must be posted by the defendant to ensure that he or she returns to court on a future date.  If appropriate, the ADA in the Arraignment Part will request that bail be set and give reasons for the bail conditions requested. Once the defense counsel responds, the court will set the bail amount.  If the defendant or someone on his or her behalf posts the amount of money or bond required to make bail, he or she will be released.  A defendant can also be released on his own recognizance ("ROR'd") if the court feels that bail is unnecessary.  If the case is particularly serious, the court may remand the defendant, who is then held in custody without bail.

What happens to a misdemeanor or violation case after arraignment?

If the defendant does not plead guilty, misdemeanor and violation cases are adjourned from arraignments into calendar parts in Criminal Court.  If bail is set and the defendant cannot post the bail, the New York City Department of Correction detains him in jail until the next court date. Defendants who are released on their own recognizance or who posted bail must appear in court on the appointed date.  If a defendant fails to appear, the Judge will issue a bench warrant for the defendant's arrest.

Once a defendant has been arraigned, his case does not go straight to trial.  First, a number of legal issues must be addressed.  In the calendar part, legal motions and other pretrial matters are addressed.

Defendants may choose to enter a guilty plea in the calendar part.

What happens to a felony case after arraignment?

Felonies are crimes for which more than one year of imprisonment may be imposed.  In a few felony cases, plea offers may be made at Criminal Court arraignment.  Otherwise, the Judge presiding at Criminal Court arraignments will adjourn the case to Part F, pending action by a Grand Jury.  The case will remain in Part F for all proceedings prior to indictment or, if appropriate, a misdemeanor disposition.