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Criminal Justice Terms Glossary

By University Alliance
Criminal Justice Terms Glossary

Like any academic discipline, the field of criminal justice has developed its own extensive collection of terminology, phrases, abbreviations, etc. Below is a reference guide of terms commonly used and frequently encountered in the field of criminal justice. This guide may be highly beneficial for aspiring professionals who wish to pursue a thriving career in criminal justice.

  • Accused: A person or persons formally charged with a crime but not yet tried.
  • Adjudication: The judicial decision that ends a criminal proceeding by a judgment of acquittal, conviction, or dismissal of a case. This term is also used in juvenile proceedings.
  • Admissible Evidence: Evidence that is relevant and proper for consideration in reaching a decision in court. Pre-trial hearings are often held to allow the judge to make this determination.
  • Affidavit: A written, sworn statement in which the writer swears that the information stated therein is true.
  • Appeal: A request by either the defense counsel or prosecutor in a case to have a higher court resolve a dispute with a judge’s decision.
  • Arraignment Hearing: A hearing in which an accused is brought before the court to plead either guilty or not guilty to the criminal charges, and is advised of his/her constitutional rights under law. Arraignment hearings are considered pre-trial hearings
  • Arrest: To take a person into custody, by authority of law, for the purpose of charging him/her with a criminal offense. An arrest is proper when an arresting officer has probable cause to believe the arrestee has engaged in criminal behavior; or upon an arrest warrant issued by a judge or magistrate. The judge or magistrate must find probable cause before issuance of the warrant.
  • Bail Hearing: A hearing to determine whether or not an incarcerated defendant or convicted offender will be released from custody and to determine what amount (if any) he/she must pay as a bond to assure his/her presence at future proceedings (e.g., trial). This may also include specific conditions of bail, e.g., no contact with the victim or witness, must attend treatment programs, etc. (Also referred to in some jurisdictions as a bond hearing.)
  • Bench: Where the judge sits during court proceedings. The term is often used to refer to the judge.
  • Bench Trial: A trial in which the judge hears the case without a jury, and decides whether the accused is guilty.
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: The degree of proof needed for a judge or jury to convict a person accused of a crime.
  • Burden of Proof: A rule of evidence that makes a person prove a certain thing, otherwise the contrary will be assumed by the court. For example, in criminal trials, the prosecution has the burden of proving the accused guilt because innocence is presumed.
  • Case Law: The law as formed by past court decisions, opinions, interpretations, or traditions.
  • Challenging Denial of Claim for Compensation: Any steps taken by the party applying for crime victim compensation to overturn, or adjust a compensation award, i.e., file a motion to reconsider and/or appeal the determination to the Board or a higher authority or court of law.
  • Change of Venue: The transfer of a pending case in one county or district to another county or district. A “change of venue” is often sought because of claimed prejudicial publicity in the original county or district.
  • Charge: A formal accusation filed by the prosecution that a specific person has committed a specific crime. (Also referred to as “pressing charges.”)
  • Clemency: Reducing the sentence of someone convicted of a crime.
  • Community Supervision: An order usually from a probation or parole officer that specifies the conditions an offender must obey. This can include conditions that reflect victims’ concerns and needs (such as safety and protection).
  • Complaint: A preliminary charge that a person has committed a specified offense.
  • Confidentiality: A requirement that certain facts about a proceeding or the nature of a proceeding will be withheld from the public.
  • Contempt of Court: This is usually thought of as someone attacking the integrity of the court. This can be done by refusing to obey a court order.
  • Continuance: A delay or postponement of a court hearing. A case can be continued for “good cause,” such as illness or witness availability, or by mutual agreement between the prosecution and defense.
  • Conviction: A judgment of the court, based either on the decision of a jury or judge, that the defendant is guilty of the crime for which he/she was tried.
  • Corroborating Witness: A person who is able to give information that supports the statements made by the victim, defendant, or a witness.
  • Count: Each separate offense listed in a complaint or indictment accusing a person of committing a crime.
  • Criminal Justice System: The entire network of government agencies charged with law enforcement, prosecution, defense, trial, incarceration, and supervision of people arrested and/or convicted of having violated state or federal criminal law.
  • Criminal Trial: A judicial proceeding before a court to determine if a person charged with a crime committed that crime.
  • Cross Examination: When a witness is questioned by the opposing party (the prosecuting attorney or defense counsel).
  • Defendant: A person who has been formally charged by a court with committing a specific crime.
  • Defense Counsel: The lawyer who represents the defendant in a legal proceeding. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires that all people accused of a crime have a right to counsel (a lawyer). The defense counsel is sometimes called the “public defender” or “defense attorney.”
  • Deposition: The sworn testimony of a witness taken outside of court in the presence of the prosecution and defense attorneys. A deposition can be used at trial to discredit a witness’ testimony, or it can be read to a jury if the witness is unavailable.
  • Dismissal: A judge’s decision to end a case, with or without prejudice, for legal or other reasons.
  • Disposition: The final decision that ends a criminal proceeding or that ends a disputed matter within the proceeding.
  • Docket: The formal record of the court proceedings. The “trial docket” sometimes refers to the list of cases to be tried on any given day, or in a specified period of time.
  • Enforce: To compel obedience to a law, rule, or order. To enforce a victim’s or defendant’s right means to put that right into practice.
  • Evidence: Testimony and objects used to prove or disprove the statements made by the victim, the defendant, or other witnesses.
  • Exercise: To make use of. Thus, to exercise a right or power means the person who has that right chooses to have it fulfilled in/by the court.
  • Felony: A serious crime that can be punished by incarceration.
  • Grand Jury: A collection of citizens called to serve on a jury whose duty it is to examine the evidence supporting charges alleged by law enforcement and/or the prosecutor to determine if the evidence is sufficient to have a trial.
  • Grand Jury Hearing: A hearing during which the Grand Jury examines the evidence supporting charges alleged by law enforcement and/or the prosecutor, to determine if the evidence is sufficient to have a trial.
  • Guilty: A verdict of a judge or jury that a person accused of committing a crime did commit it.
  • Habeas Corpus: A Federal process and proceeding in which a prisoner challenges the lawfulness of his/her imprisonment.
  • Hearing: A legal proceeding where a judge hears arguments, witnesses, and/or evidence.
  • Hearsay: Testimony of an individual that is not from his/her personal knowledge, but from what the witness has heard another person say.
  • Indictment: A formal charging document presented by the prosecution to a grand jury. The grand jury may then issue the indictment if it believes that if the accusation is proved, it would lead to a conviction.
  • Jail: A local facility where people are held in custody. Defendants awaiting trial and people convicted of lesser crimes are held in jails. Prisons house persons already convicted of crimes and sentenced to longer terms.
  • Jury: A panel of citizens selected by the prosecution, defense, and judge, and sworn to determine certain facts by listening to testimony in order to decide if the defendant committed the crime.
  • Jury, Hung: A “hung jury” is one whose members cannot agree if the defendant committed the crime.
  • Misdemeanor: A crime that is less serious than a felony, and for which the conviction can mean imprisonment for one year or less, usually in a jail or other local facility, and/or a fine.
  • Mistrial: A trial that is invalid because of some fundamental error in procedure or other wrongdoing.
  • Motion: A verbal or written request made by the prosecuting or defense attorney before, during, or after a trial that the court responds to by issuing a rule or an order.
  • Nolo Contendre: A defendant’s formal answer in court to the charges where the defendant states that he/she does not contest the charges. The nolo contendre plea is not an admission of guilt, but carries the same legal consequences as a guilty plea.
  • Not Guilty: A verdict by a judge or jury that a person accused of a crime did not commit it, or that not enough evidence exists to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.
  • Notice: An official means of providing information, in oral or written form, to an identified party regarding his/her rights or interests (e.g., a letter stating the date, time, and location of a parole hearing; a telephone call informing a victim about the outcome of a sentencing hearing; an automated telephone call informing the victim of the escape of their accused offender, etc.).
  • Objection: A protest or argument made concerning the activity of the other party (prosecuting or defense attorney) in court. The judge can “overrule” (disregard) or “sustain” (uphold) an objection.
  • Pardon: An act of grace from governing power that mitigates punishment and restores rights and privileges forfeited on account of the offense.
  • Parole: Release of a prisoner from jail or prison, but not from legal custody and supervision. People under parole supervision are subject to conditions of supervision that are designed to reduce recidivism and promote public safety. They are supervised by a parole officer.
  • Parole Revocation: When probable cause is found that a person under parole supervision violated his/her conditions of supervision, parole is revoked and the offender is returned to custody (jail or prison).
  • Plea Agreement: An agreement between the defendant and the prosecutor that will bring the case to an end if the court approves the agreement. It usually involves the defendant’s pleading guilty to a lesser offense, which could include a recommendation for a lesser sentence.
  • Plea Agreement Hearing: A hearing where the prosecuting and defense attorneys submit a plea agreement to the court for its approval.
  • Guilty Plea: An admission of guilt by the defendant in open court.
  • Preliminary Hearing: A legal proceeding before a judge in which arguments, witnesses, and/or evidence are presented to determine if there is sufficient probable cause to hold the accused for trial. It is sometimes called a probable cause hearing.
  • Pre-trial Release Hearing: Any hearing to determine whether the defendant will be released from custody prior to the trial (i.e., bail or bond hearing).
  • Prison: State or Federal facilities where persons convicted of a felony are held.
  • Probable Cause: The degree of proof needed to arrest and begin prosecution against a person suspected of committing a crime. The evidence must be such that a reasonable person would believe that this specific crime was committed, and that it is probable that the person being accused committed it.
  • Proceeding: Business conducted before a court or judicial officer (e.g., hearings, trials, conferences, etc.).
  • Pro se: When the defendant is representing him/herself in court and is not represented by counsel (a defense attorney), as when he/she has waived the right to counsel in a proceeding.
  • Probation: Conditional freedom granted to a person by the court after conviction or a guilty plea, with requirements for the person’s behavior (“conditions of probation”). A violation of the conditions may potentially mean jail or prison time. A probation officer conducts supervision.
  • Prosecutor: A trial lawyer representing the government in a criminal case and the interests of the state in civil matters. In criminal cases, the prosecutor has the responsibility of deciding who and when to prosecute.
  • Recusal: An action taken by any court official, including a judge, to disqualify or withdraw him/herself from a case where his/her impartiality might be questioned.
  • Release Hearing: A hearing to determine whether to grant, and on what basis to grant, an incarcerated or accused defendant limited, temporary, or permanent release. Examples include work release, temporary release for a family emergency, medical treatment, vocational training, or to attend legal proceedings.
  • Restitution: A court order that requires a convicted offender to repay the victim money or services to compensate for the monetary losses that resulted from the crime.
  • Restraining Order: An order issued by a court that forbids a person from certain behaviors. One example is an order forbidding an alleged or convicted offender to have any contact with the victim, specific people connected to the victim, or witnesses. It is also called a protective or no contact order.
  • Sentence: The legal consequence for a crime that is formally announced by a judge or jury formally pronounces after a criminal defendant has been found guilty.
  • Sentence, Concurrent: Sentences served at the same time.
  • Sentence, Consecutive: Sentences served one after the other.
  • Statute: Any law passed by a state legislature or United States Congress.
  • Subpoena: A court order requiring a person to appear in court on a specified day and time to give testimony. It may also include an order to produce documents or records. Failure to appear constitutes contempt of court.
  • Summons: A court order used to bring a person accused of a crime (who is not in custody) to court.
  • Testimony: Evidence given by a competent witness under oath, as distinguished from evidence derived from writings and other sources.
  • Transcript: The official record of a trial or hearing.
  • Trial: A judicial process that examines the evidence of a case.
  • Victim Impact Statement: A written or verbal statement from a victim about the physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual impact the crime has had on him. The Victim Impact Statement is delivered to the court or the Parole Board to be considered before a sentence or release decision is made.
  • Victim Right: A “power granted by law that entitles a victim to require another person, usually a criminal justice official (police, prosecutor, judge, probation or parole officer, or corrections official), to perform a specific act or refrain from performing a specific act.”
  • Voir Dire: A procedure in which the prosecutor and defense attorney question potential jurors to pick a jury.
  • Waiver: The voluntary surrender of a right, claim, or privilege.
  • Warrant: A court order directing a law enforcement officer to make an arrest, a search, or a seizure.
Category: Criminal Justice