An overview of American criminal procedure law
The American criminal process is often described as a funnel. Police investigate tens of millions of people and criminal incidents every year. Of these, perhaps 10 to 15 million result in arrest and prosecution, the vast majority of them for misdemeanors (i.e., crimes resulting in incarceration of a year or less) rather than felonies.1 A significant percentage of crimes that are prosecuted end in dismissal of the charges, acquittals, or diversion out of the system, so that the number of people convicted of crime is much smaller than the number arrested. Of these, the number that go to prison rather than receive a suspended sentence and probation is much smaller still. Even with this winnowing process, today approximately 2 million Americans are serving time in prison, representing about 5 percent of the world’s incarcerated population,2 and another 5 to 7 million offenders are on some type of supervised release.3 Roughly 35 percent of the current American population has an arrest record.4 When victims and witnesses are included, the criminal process directly affects a huge proportion of the population.
The precise procedures governing this process vary substantially among the 50 states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia (the criminal laws of which come from Congress). But in broad overview the process is similar in all 52 American jurisdictions. An investigation begins with police observation of conduct they think warrants inquiry or with the report of a crime from a “confidential” informant, a victim, an eyewitness, or...
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