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Criminal Justice System: How It Works

The criminal justice process is complex, and often can be confusing to persons not familiar with criminal law.  This arrest-to-sentence guide and legal glossary are designed to explain and clarify the criminal justice process in New York County.


What types of sentences may be imposed if a person is found guilty?

After a jury renders a guilty verdict or after a defendant pleads guilty, a defendant will be sentenced.  A judge may sentence a defendant to a term of imprisonment, a term of probation, a conditional discharge, an unconditional discharge, or impose a fine.  Sentencing is governed by statutes that indicate those crimes for which imprisonment is mandatory and the permissible minimums and maximums for each class of crime.  To determine the sentence within the ranges permitted by law, the judge examines the crime and the defendant's participation, his background, and history.

Probation may be given when a jail term is not considered necessary for the protection of society.  The court may decide that probation can provide needed training, guidance, or assistance to the defendant and can add conditions to the sentence of probation to reflect those needs.

A conditional discharge is imposed when the court believes that neither jail nor probation is appropriate.  The court can require the defendant to lead a law-abiding life, to participate in a specific program, or to avoid contact with certain people.  A sentence of an unconditional discharge is imposed when the judge does not believe that it would be helpful to impose any conditions on the defendant.  A fine may be imposed in addition to the other types of sentences, or it can be the only sentence imposed.