What to Expect from the Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system includes a wide range of activities from the investigation of a possible crime, to a legal determination of guilt or innocence. The process of going through the criminal justice system can seem overwhelming at times because there are so many moving pieces and players. Understanding a few key aspects of the process can take away some of the unknowns and help you feel more prepared.

What does it mean to press charges?
After the initial report is made to law enforcement, a survivor can decide whether or not they would like to move forward with the investigation, a process referred to as pressing charges. Ultimately, the decision to press criminal charges is up to the state. It’s possible, though uncommon, that a prosecutor may move forward with charges based solely on the available evidence, even if the survivor chooses not to be involved.

Why would the state decide not to move ahead with the case?
If law enforcement or the prosecution team feel that they are not able to prove guilt, they may decide not to press charges. They may have encountered challenges proving the case due to a lack of evidence, an inability to identify the perpetrator, or other factors. It can be tough to hear, but this is not meant to diminish your experience. Out of every 100 instances of rape, only 7 lead to an arrest1 and only 3 are referred to prosecutors2. No matter the final outcome, reporting increases the likelihood that the perpetrator will face consequences.

There are opportunities to explore your pursuit for justice beyond the criminal justice system. You may choose to file a civil suit, which is a lawsuit in civil court in order to receive monetary compensation.

Learn more about civil suits from the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Charges have been pressed. What happens now?
Many sexual assault cases are resolved through a plea bargain. A plea bargain an agreement between the prosecutor and perpetrator’s representative, in which the perpetrator agrees to plead guilty to a crime in return for a reduction in penalty, such as a lighter sentence. This course of action does not involve or require the survivor to testify.

If the case does go to trial it will be tried in criminal court, and the survivor will generally be asked to testify. Some aspects of state and federal law are designed to protect the interests of survivors who participate in a trial. One example is a rape shield law, which limits what the defense can ask the victim about prior sexual history. The prosecutor can also file legal motions to try to protect the victim from having to disclose other personal information. All states have their own rules and resources for protecting participants in a trial. You can learn more about the resources in your state from the Office for Victims of Crime.

What should I know about testifying?
It can be nerve-racking to speak in public, as well as in a courtroom. It’s important to discuss concerns you might have with the legal professionals who are representing you and supporting your interests. In some areas, the local sexual assault service provider can provide you with an advocate to support you during the trial or resources to make the process less intimidating. You may also have the right to a support person or special accommodations depending on your state’s Victim Bill of Rights. You can learn more about these rights and other resources through the Office for Victims of Crime.

Here are a few tips before taking the stand:

  • Learn as much as possible about the case before it begins.
  • Know your limits. Allow yourself to take brief pauses.
  • Stay hydrated; bring a water bottle and take sips of water throughout.
  • Keep your eyes focused on who is asking the questions, rather than looking at the perpetrator or their supporters.
  • Remind yourself that you have a right to tell your story; trust your memory and feelings.
  • If at any time you're feeling overwhelmed, ask the judge or prosecutor for a short break.
  • Remember that the defense attorney is just doing their job—try not to take it personally.
  • Check to see if there is a safe, quiet place to wait within the courthouse.

Throughout the criminal justice proceedings, you may want additional support. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE(4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.

Legal Disclaimer
The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) website provides general information that is intended, but not guaranteed, to be correct and up-to-date. The information is not presented as a source of legal advice. You should not rely, for legal advice, on statements or representations made within the website or by any externally referenced Internet sites. If you need legal advice upon which you intend to rely in the course of your legal affairs, consult a competent, independent attorney. RAINN does not assume any responsibility for actions or non-actions taken by people who have visited this site, and no one shall be entitled to a claim for detrimental reliance on any information provided or expressed.
1.Uniform Crime Reports, Arrest Data: 2006-2010 2. FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, Offenses Cleared Data: 2006-2010

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