The criminal justice system may appear complex and overwhelming to those who encounter it for the first time. We hope the explanation that follows helps you understand how the system is organized and what role our office plays in the process.*
When a crime is committed, law enforcement gets the first call. In this county, it is the responsibility of local police and the Sheriff’s Department to investigate crimes and arrest suspects. In many instances, suspects are immediately taken into custody and jailed. However, if the crime is not violent and the charge is minor, an individual may be directed in writing to appear in court on a specific date.
In Illinois there are three major classes of offenses for which a person may be prosecuted: felonies, misdemeanors and petty offenses. Some are defined in the Illinois Penal Code, and others can be found in local ordinances or statutes such as the Vehicle Code. A petty offense is the least serious offense and often results in a fine.
A misdemeanor is a more significant crime that can result in jail time. Examples of misdemeanors are retail theft or driving under the influence of alcohol. A felony is the most serious crime and carries a penalty of more than one year of imprisonment. Examples of felonies are robbery, burglary, sale of narcotics and murder.
THE STATE'S ATTORNEY'S OFFICE
The State's Attorney’s office represents the People of the State of Illinois. Prosecutors bring criminal charges against suspects in a court of law. The Winnebago County State's Attorney's Office has the responsibility and authority to prosecute all felonies in Winnebago County. We also prosecute all misdemeanors in the county.
Marilyn Hite Ross is the Winnebago County State's Attorney who oversees approximately 50 attorneys that work in the State's Attorney's Office. They are called Assistant State's Attorneys or prosecutors. Helping prosecutors prepare their cases are State's Attorney Investigators who are sworn peace officers. In order to become a State's Attorney Investigator, a police officer must have completed law enforcement basic training and served as an officer for at least five years. Currently the State's Attorney's Office employs 3 full time investigators. More than 30 other support personnel including paralegals, legal administrative assistants and clerical staff contribute to the daily work of the office.
Before authorizing charges an Assistant State's Attorney will review the facts with law enforcement. The Assistant State's Attorney evaluates whether there is enough evidence to support the charges originally brought by police in a criminal complaint. If the evidence is convincing, the prosecutor will authorize charges.
In some cases, the Assistant State's Attorney may decline charges if it is determined that there is insufficient evidence or if more investigation is required.
Criminal cases are prosecuted in the Winnebago County Court House or the Winnebago County Criminal Justice Center. Juvenile Delinquency and Abuse & Neglect Dependency matters are handled at the Winnebago County Juvenile Justice Center.
Once a prosecutor authorizes charges a case is created and the case is
placed on the court’s docket, and the defendant is brought before a judge for arraignment. In Winnebago County, criminal defendants who are in custody are arraigned within seventy-two hours of their arrest if they are not able to post bail. If the defendant cannot afford an attorney, one is appointed. During an arraignment, the defendant is informed of the charges in the complaint and enters a plea. The judge sets the amount of bail, if any, and assigns the next court date. On Felony cases the prosecutor will prepare a bill of indictment to present to a Grand Jury to determine probable cause.
Bail is set at the time of the arrest and is often required to ensure the defendant returns to court at a future date. The amount of bail is dictated by the judge based on the seriousness of the crime. In some cases on serious crimes the prosecutor may ask for a high bond or no bond if the defendant is considered a flight risk or a dangerous person. The prosecutor may also ask the judge to attach conditions to a defendant's release on bond such as having no contact with a victim or restrictions on travel. The defense attorney will usually argue for a reduction. The judge has the final word on bond amount and conditions of bond.
If the defendant posts the amount of money required to make bail, he or she will be released. Some defendants are released without bail on their “own recognizance.” This happens when the judge is confidant they can be counted on to appear in court for all proceedings. If bail is set, a defense attorney may request a bail review hearing at a future date to reconsider the amount of bail. The issue of bail may be raised at subsequent hearings.
Victims and witnesses to crimes play an essential role in the criminal justice process. Victim service providers are available to assist victims of crimes. They provide support and guidance through the criminal process. Under the Illinois Constitution the Rights of Crime Victims and Witnesses Act, victims are able to assert certain rights in criminal proceedings. For more information please refer to Illinois Statute 725 ILCS 120/1
FELONY DISPOSITION CONFERENCE / READINESS CONFERENCE:
Typically there are two formal opportunities for the prosecution and defense to negotiate a disposition (plea bargain) on a case. The first occurs before the Grand Jury Indictment; the second occurs after the Grand Jury Indictment and before trial. In both instances a judge will sit “in conference” with the Assistant State's Attorney and the defense attorney and must approve any negotiated settlement. Many cases are resolved in plea bargains at either stage of the proceedings.
Guilty pleas occur when the defendant either admits all of the charges or enters into a plea bargain in which the prosecution and the defendant have mutually agreed upon the charges. Plea bargains will include either a stipulated sentence or a sentencing recommendation. A judge must approve all negotiated pleas.
MOTIONS AND HEARINGS:
Sometimes legal issues must be resolved before a plea bargain or trial may take place. These pre-trial hearings are scheduled and heard by the trial judge assigned to the case.
A criminal trial is a search for the truth. It proceeds through the examination of evidence (which includes the statements of witnesses) in a courtroom before a judge or a jury to determine whether a defendant is guilty of the charges in the complaint beyond a reasonable doubt.
Voir Dire is the name given to jury selection. Twelve jurors and several alternates are chosen to hear a criminal case. When prospective jurors are summoned to the courtroom, the judge will explain certain principles of law and question the prospective jurors. The Assistant State's Attorney and the defense attorney will also ask questions and “explore for bias.” After questioning, each side may exercise a limited number of “peremptory challenges” to excuse jurors they don’t want. The process continues until the 12 jurors and two or more alternates are chosen and sworn.
The Parts of a Trial:
Opening Statement: At the beginning of the trial, the Assistant State's Attorney makes an Opening Statement that outlines the prosecution’s case against the defendant. A defense attorney may elect to make an Opening Statement as well, but it is not required. No argument is permitted during opening statements.
Case In Chief: The case brought by the State's Attorney's Office generally involves calling witnesses and introducing other evidence. The Assistant State's Attorney questions each witness. Afterwards, the defense attorney may question or cross-examine the witness. The Assistant State's Attorney can follow up with more questions on redirect. This process continues until all of the prosecution's witnesses in the case have testified. At the end of the prosecution’s case, the defendant may ask the judge to dismiss the charges - a request that on the theory that the trial evidence is insufficient to establish the crime(s) charged referred to as a directed verdict.
Defense Case: The defendant is not required to testify, to present any witnesses, or to present any evidence. If defense witnesses are called, the Assistant State's Attorney may cross-examine each witness.
Rebuttal: The State's Attorney's Office may present witnesses or evidence to rebut information presented by the defense.
Closing Arguments: The Assistant State's Attorney delivers a summation, at which time the evidence is reviewed and arguments supporting a guilty verdict are offered. The defense presents its closing argument after the prosecution. The Assistant State's Attorney is allowed time for rebuttal after the defense’s arguments. At the conclusion of closing arguments the judge gives final instructions on the law and explains the elements of each crime charged.
Deliberation: The jury may find the defendant guilty, not guilty, or may be unable to agree on a verdict (hung). If the jury cannot come to a verdict, with the court’s approval, the case may be tried again.
The information provided above is meant to offer a general overview of the Illinois state legal system and should not be relied upon as legal advice.