When People Break The Law

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Depending on the crime a person has committed, he or she may have broken a federal law, a state law, or both. However, the great majority of crimes committed are state crimes. Criminal laws and procedures vary from state to state, but in general the following actions take place when kids and adults break the law.

What Happens to Kids

When minors, people under age 18, break the law, they usually appear in juvenile court. Since a minor will rarely have a jury trial, the judge hears the evidence and decides whether or not there is enough evidence to prove that the child has broken the law. In most cases, the child admits to the crime and depending on the situation, the judge may put the child on probation, place the child in a foster home, or in serious cases, the child may be sent to a juvenile institution. If the child denies the crime, however, an adjudicatory hearing, much like a criminal trial, is held. At this hearing, the child is represented by a lawyer. If the judge determines that there is enough evidence, a second hearing is arranged to decide a sentence.

What Happens to Adults

When an adult commits a serious crime and is arrested by police, sometimes there will be a trial. In the federal system and in some states, a grand jury decides whether or not there is enough evidence for a trial. If there is enough evidence, the person is indicted. If there is not enough evidence the charges are dropped. In states that don't use grand juries, an information will be issued by the prosecutor. An information is a formal accusation by the prosecutor. Once the indictment or information has been filed, the defendant is arraigned. This is when the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty. If he pleads not guilty, the case goes to trial.

Sometimes plea bargaining occurs. The defense attorney and the prosecutor try to settle a case with the court's approval. In a plea bargain, the defendant pleads guilty to a lessor offense or the prosecutor drops some of the charges, or agrees to ask for a lighter sentence from the judge.

If there is a trial, the Constitution guarantees every defendant certain rights. With serious crimes, there is the right to be tried before a jury; the defendant can also waive this right and have a judge decide the verdict. The following also applies to all jury trials: 1) the defendant is presumed innocent, 2) the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, 3) the defendant has the right not to take the stand, 4) evidence obtained through unconstitutional police procedures is excluded, and 5) incriminating statements of defendants are allowed.

If the defendant is found not guilty, he is acquitted. If he is found guilty, he is convicted and then sentenced. Usually the trial judge hands out the sentence, but sometimes the jury does. The sentence may be a fine, incarceration, probation, or, in some states, the death penalty.

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