The criminal justice system in the United States is very interesting for several reasons. For people who are involved in the system as defendants, the things that differentiate it from other models can also cause confusion.
It is imperative for anyone who is facing criminal charges to understand some of the nuances. In most cases, having the right information can make the difference between feeling stressed out and overwhelmed and being able to cope with the process.
State charges vs. federal charges
Many aspects of government are passed to states instead of being handled by the federal government. Education and public roadways are two examples of this. The justice system is a bit different. Instead of holding on to all power or passing it all along to each state, the federal government maintains some control over criminal laws. It has also passed some power on to the states.
The federal government can choose to prosecute crimes that fall under its jurisdiction, but in many instances it will allow the state to take a case. For example, drug trafficking might be prosecuted under both systems if the trafficker used the interstate highways to move the drugs. It is possible that the federal court system will choose to prosecute the alleged trafficker or defer to the state court system instead.
Grand jury vs. trial jury
Another confusing thing is that there are two distinct types of juries in the criminal justice system. The grand jury doesn't convict people, but it decides if there is sufficient evidence to warrant a criminal charge. Prosecutors can follow the recommendation of the grand jury but are free to bypass the recommendation. The trial jury decides whether a person is guilty or not guilty of a crime.
It is often said that people who are facing criminal charges have the right to a trial by a jury of their peers, but this concept can be misunderstood. Sometimes minor cases like non-felonies won't fall under this category. If you are facing a criminal charge that isn't a felony, find out if you have the right to a jury trial.
Sentencing can be confusing. A host of possibilities can apply to one case. The court has a wide berth to do what it feels is necessary. Some convictions will come with mandatory minimum sentences, which means that the court can't set anything less than the requirement.
It is always best to have your questions answered based on your specific circumstances. Legal advice can help you find out what options you have and decide how you might want to proceed.