Q: Can a person be punished for attempting to commit a crime?
A: Many jurisdictions have either a general "attempt" crime or individual statutes that make attempted murder or attempted robbery or the like a crime. The purpose of these statutes is to punish an individual who has shown himself or herself to be dangerously inclined to commit a crime without waiting until the criminal act is actually completed. In order to convict a person for an attempted crime, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person had the intent to do an act or bring about certain consequences that would amount to a crime, and that he or she took some step beyond mere preparation towards that goal.
Q: What is a "grand jury"?
A: A grand jury is a group of people called together by the prosecutor to gather information about suspected criminal activity by listening to testimony from witnesses and examining documents and other evidence. The prosecutor acts as legal advisor to the grand jury and directs the flow of witnesses and evidence. At the end of the proceeding, the grand jury decides whether there is enough evidence to put the defendant on trial for the crime.
Q: Who is the "prosecutor"?
A: Prosecution refers to the government's role in the criminal justice system. When criminal activity is suspected, it is up to the government to investigate, arrest, charge and bring the alleged offender to trial. Prosecutors are the lawyers who work for the government and who are responsible for presenting the government's case against a defendant. Prosecutors may be called county attorneys, city attorneys, or district attorneys.
Q: How does the prosecutor decide which cases to pursue?
A: The first thing the prosecutor looks for is a legally sound case, or one without any obvious defects that will get it thrown out of court, such as violations of the defendant's constitutional rights or destruction of evidence crucial to the defense. The prosecutor next decides if there is enough evidence, with regard to both the quantity and the quality thereof, to make conviction probable. Finally, the prosecutor decides if prosecuting the case fits in with the office's policy objectives, or whether a more informal disposition such as pre-trial diversion may be in order.
Q: What is the difference between parole and probation?
A: Parole and probation are employed in the punishment phase of the criminal justice process. Parole comes into play after a person has been imprisoned and is released subject to supervision by an officer of the court. Probation, by contrast, refers to a criminal sentence separate and distinct from incarceration. Probation is the most frequent sentence imposed for less serious or first offenses and typically involves releasing the convicted offender into the community subject to a list of terms and conditions.
Q: What is "restitution"?
A: Restitution involves ordering the defendant to pay the victim a sum of money designed to compensate the victim for the monetary costs of the crime, such as medical bills, property damage, and lost wages. By federal law, under the Mandatory Victims' Restitution Act of 1996, restitution is required when a violent crime has been committed and for certain other, limited, offenses. Many state and federal laws also require a criminal offender to make restitution to the victim, and the court will order restitution under those laws when the offender is sentenced.
Q: What is "white collar crime"?
A: White collar crime is a term originally used to describe criminal activity by members of the upper classes in connection with their professions. Today, the most common definition of white collar crime no longer focuses on the social status of the offender but rather on the type of conduct involved: illegal acts using deceit and concealment to obtain money, property, or services, or to secure a business or professional advantage. White collar crimes are usually less violent than other crimes, but their effects can be just as devastating, such as in the recent Enron case.
Q: Are children charged with committing crimes prosecuted in the same manner as adults?
A: Children are subject to a separate judicial system called the juvenile court system. Generally, the focus of the juvenile court system is more on rehabilitation than on punishment. In some cases, however, older juveniles who commit more serious crimes will be charged as adults and tried in the regular criminal courts. In such cases, their sentence, too, will be more in accord with adult punishment, whereas in juvenile court any incarceration is usually in a more rehabilitative setting and generally ends when the juvenile attains the age of majority.
Q: Do I need a lawyer to represent me even if I am innocent?
A: Every criminal defendant needs a criminal defense lawyer. Innocent defendants are perhaps in even greater need of zealous representation throughout the criminal process to ensure that their rights are protected and that the truth prevails. Even innocent people end up in jail, so the best way to prevent that miscarriage of justice is to employ the services of a seasoned veteran of criminal defense law.
Q: If I simply intend to plead guilty, why do I need a lawyer?
A: Even if you are guilty of the crime with which you are charged, it is imperative that you seek the advice of experienced counsel so that you can minimize your sentence and maximize your opportunities to move ahead toward a brighter future. Criminal defense attorneys are needed to equalize the balance of power between the defendant and the prosecution and to ensure that the constitutional rights that are guaranteed to all criminal defendants, whether guilty or not, are preserved.