101 Most Common Criminal Justice & Law Questions

The criminal justice and legal systems in America and most western nations are complex. Students of criminal justice and law have far more questions than can be put into a single page. Deciding was tough, but here are what we believe to be the 101 most common criminal justice and law questions asked by students. The answers below are very brief. More detailed answers coming soon.

  1. What’s the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?

A felony is a major charge, often resulting in extensive prison sentences for a conviction whereas a misdemeanor is less severe and may result in some jail time, but more often fines and/or community service.

  1. What’s the difference between an infraction and a misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor is a light charge which may incur jail time but an infraction is a minor charge which only results in a fine if convicted.

  1. What is the difference between first, second, and third degrees of crimes?

Felony crimes are often referred to in degrees with first being the most severe, second less so, and third the least of all.

  1. What is jurisdiction?

Jurisdictions refer to the power of a political authority over the people living in a set geographic area.

  1. What is the difference between city, county, state, and federal law enforcement?

A city, county, state, and country are different political entities wielding power over specified geographic areas and each is tasked with law enforcement in its area of control. Thus, a city falls within the jurisdiction of all four law enforcement powers while federal agencies wield power over all others; city police have jurisdiction only in their city; county police only in their county; and state only in their state.

  1. Why would an attorney represent someone they know is guilty?

For the United States‘ criminal justice system function properly, each defendant is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Thus, an attorney should provide a vigorous defense even to a defendant they know is guilty.

  1. What is exculpatory evidence?

Exculpatory evidence is information/facts which can potentially exonerate a defendant.

  1. What is the Miranda Warning?

The Miranda Warning is a statement made by an arresting police officer notifying a suspect of their Constitutional rights.

  1. What is self-incrimination?

Making voluntary statements to investigating police officers which could result in a conviction of charges.

  1. When can someone plead the fifth?

Any time a person believes that what they say may be used against them in a criminal case, they can plead the fifth, which is to say that they are exercising their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

  1. Must police say the entire Miranda Warning when making an arrest?

That depends on the situation. Not every arrest is as tidy as shown on TV. However, before statements made by a suspect may be used against them, the Miranda Warning must be issued.

  1. Where did the Miranda Warning come from?

In the 1966 landmark case, Miranda v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prior to taking statements from a suspect, the suspect should be informed of their Fifth Amendment right to silence.

  1. Why does a suspect have the ‘right to remain silent?’

When the framers of the U.S. Constitution drafted the Bill of Rights, they sought to protect American citizens from government overreach such as they faced under English rule. The Fifth Amendment ensured that no one could be compelled to testify against themselves.

  1. What is profiling?

Often called racial profiling, profiling is the practice of using appearance to determine whether someone is likely guilty of a crime.

  1. What is bail?

Bail is a means of ensuring that a defendant in a crime appears in court to answer the charges.

  1. What does a bail bondsman do?

When a person cannot afford the bail set by the courts, a bail bondsman will provide a guarantee to the courts on behalf of a defendant for a fee which is generally 10% of the bond paid up-front by the defendant.

  1. What happens if a person ‘jumps’ bail?

If a person ‘jumps’ bail, that is, fails to appear in court at their scheduled time, they will have a bench warrant issued for their arrest; if they used a bail bondsman, they will likely become the target of a bounty hunter.

  1. What is a bounty hunter?

A bounty hunter looks for bail jumpers, often at the behest of a bail bondsman. They are licensed by the state to track and by nearly any means necessary, take a suspect into custody and return them to the courts.

  1. What is the Three Strikes law?

Three Strikes is the moniker given to a series of laws passed by half the states and the federal government starting in 1993. These laws required that anyone found guilty of a third felony be given an automatic life sentence, regardless of the circumstances of the case.

  1. What are Mandatory Minimums?

Mandatory minimums are sentences which have been codified into law; rather than a judge determining the sentence, certain crimes must be met with a sentence which is specified by the law and may not be reduced because of extenuating circumstances.

  1. What is determinate sentencing and how does it differ from indeterminate?

Determinate sentencing is a sentence which is specific and indeterminate is not. For instance, a one-year sentence is set though may be reduced for good behavior while a sentence of 25 to life is indeterminate in length.

  1. What does it mean to be nominally sentenced?

Nominal sentencing is a form of indefinite incarceration, meaning that a convict is not given a set term of sentence, but release depends on their behavior while in prison. This sentencing is generally used with violent and sexual offenders in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and to a limited degree in the UK.

  1. What is presumptive sentencing?

Some states provide a baseline to judges in sentencing which is dependant on the crime and level; this baseline presumes that mitigating or aggravating circumstances may impact the sentence meted out, hence, it is presumptive.

  1. How are sentences determined?

Sentences are determined in various ways depending on the state or governing body. Federal crimes are sentenced according to guidelines provide by the United States Sentencing Commission. Each state uses its own method with some providing presumptive sentences, some providing minimums and maximums by statute, and others simply leaving the sentence to the presiding judge.

  1. What is capital punishment?

Capital punishment is the ultimate punishment, the death sentence.

  1. What is corporal punishment?

Corporal punishment is the inflicting of physical pain onto someone found guilty; ironically, although corporal punishment has been banned from the criminal justice system in all states and the federal government, it is still permitted against school students in 19 states.

  1. What crimes can lead to the death penalty?

On a federal level, terrorism, spying, treason, murder, major drug trafficking, and attempted murder of a juror, witness, or officer of the court may result in a death penalty among others. In the states which continue capital punishment, murder in the first degree and/or aggravating circumstances qualify for the death penalty. In Texas, one need not be the killer but merely have been present to receive this punishment.

  1. How is the death penalty carried out in the United States?

Five methods are currently used in the United States for carrying out the death penalty. These are electrocution, lethal injection, gas chamber, firing squad, and hanging.

  1. What countries practice the death penalty?

Fifty-five countries currently practice the death penalty, most of which are either in the Middle East or Africa. Notable exceptions are the United States and China. Although Russia maintains the legality of capital punishment in the nation, it has not done so, rendering it a de facto abolitionist country. Click here for a complete list of countries.

  1. What is exile?

Exile is a pre-modern form of punishment involving banishment from society or the nation.

  1. Do any countries practice exile today?

National exile is impractical in the modern world because all landmasses are claimed by some nation and there would have to be a treaty in place between an ousting nation and an accepting nation. So, no. No country can effectively practice exile, though some small tribal communities do so.

  1. What is indefinite detention?

Indefinite detention involves arresting and detaining an individual without holding a trial. It is considered a gross violation of human rights and is clearly a violation of the Constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to a trial as held in the Bill of Rights.

  1. What is a Brady Motion?

A Brady motion is a request for material witness evidence which is favorable to the defense.

  1. What is jury nullification?

Jury nullification occurs when jurors adversely judge the law in question rather than the case, ruling in favor of a defendant who is clearly guilty.

  1. What does it mean to have an omnibus motion?

When a defendant believes laws were broken by state officials to secure a charge and/or trial, he may request an omnibus motion to investigate the matter.

  1. What are pre-trial motions used for?

Arguments for evidence disclosure, the elimination of certain evidence or testimony, or any other factors which could affect the outcome of the trial but which either side believes should not be included in the case.

  1. Must a subpoena be signed for?

Legally, yes. If someone refuses to sign a subpoena, they can be found in contempt of court.

  1. What is the purpose of a subpoena?

A subpoena is a formal declaration or summons delivered to a person informing them that they are required to appear in court at a specified date and time.

  1. Who can file a subpoena?

Anyone involved in a criminal or civil trial may file a subpoena.

  1. What is the criminal justice funnel?

The Criminal Justice Funnel is a visual representation of how the system functions from intake of suspects to the point at which someone is convicted.

  1. What is the criminal justice process?

There are essentially 11 steps in the criminal justice process: Investigation, arrest, prosecution, indictment, arraignment, pretrial detention/or bail, plea bargaining, trial or adjudication, sentencing, appeals, punishment/rehabilitation.

  1. What is a Grand Jury?

A legal body formed to examine the evidence in a case to decide if there is enough to proceed with a formal indictment and trial.

  1. Why do 12 people serve on a jury?

Tradition. 12 jurors is the number which dates to the 14th Century though there appears to be no logic for the figure.

  1. Must a jury always have 12 people?

No. The Sixth Amendment, which requires trial by jury, does not specify a number. Some states allow for different numbers of jurors.

  1. Does every trial have a jury?

No. In minor cases and when the defendant agrees to wave trial-by-jury, a Bench Trial may ensure, being ruled on by the Presiding Judge.

  1. How is a jury selected?

Prior to trial, the Judge and both sides use a process of questioning called ‘voir dire‘ to decide of potential jurors are suitable and capable to hear the case. Voir dire is Latin for ‘to speak the truth.’

  1. What is a bench trial?

A Bench Trial is one which is conducted and ruled upon by a presiding judge.

  1. What is a bench warrant?

A bench warrant is a criminal warrant issued by a judge rather than a prosecutor. It is most often used when someone fails to appear in court to answer charges.

  1. What is contempt of court?

Contempt of court occurs when anyone ignores orders by a presiding judge in a case.

  1. Who has final authority in a criminal case?

Final authority in any criminal case rests with the courts; ultimately, the United States Supreme Court holds the final say, though technically, the President can exonerate anyone at any time, so one could say final authority rests with him (or forseeably, her).

  1. What is the Thin Blue Line?

The Thin Blue Line is symbolism used to represent numerous attributes of law enforcement including solidarity. The symbol itself consists of a horizontal blue line between two shades of black, with the upper black representing the public, the lower the criminals, and the blue line between creating a protective barrier between the two.

  1. What is illegal immigration?

When anyone immigrates from one country to another without following proper legal procedures, they have immigrated illegally. For instance, President Donald Trump’s grandfather illegally immigrated FROM Germany while immigrating legally TO America per the laws of the day.

  1. Are illegal immigrant’s criminals?

Not necessarily. They are in the same way that anyone who exceeds the speed limit is a criminal. However, some are, which could be the reason for the illegal nature of their movement. Most though are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their family.

  1. What happens when ICE arrests an immigrant?

The first step is detention at a private prison facility. Next, there will be a hearing to determine not only the legal/illegal nature of their presence in the country but also to properly identify the individual prior to likely deportation.

  1. How quickly are immigrants deported if found to be in America illegally?

That depends on how quickly the person can be properly identified, their threat to the nation, and whether they have broken any criminal statutes while here. In some cases, deportation happens within days and in others, years.

  1. What rights do illegal immigrants have?

The Supreme Court has long-held that the 14th Amendment applies to anyone, citizen or not. Thus, illegal immigrants have the same Constitutional protections as anyone including the right to argue their case in court.

  1. If an illegal immigrant is deported, can his/her family go along?

In some cases, kind of. Although ICE will not transport family of an illegal immigrant, if they can legally immigrate to the home country they may. However, in some cases, the family members are U.S. citizens who may themselves become illegal immigrants in the other country if they simply up and move.

  1. Why is illegal immigration illegal?

At one time, America had no immigration restrictions. In time, the federal government felt the need to regulate the inflow of immigrants to prevent subversives and other undesireable classes of people from entering.

  1. What is juvenile delinquency?

Juvenile delinquency occurs when underage persons break laws.

  1. What is juvenile justice?

Juvenile justice is a separate judicial system designed with underage offenders in mind. The goals of the juvenile justice system differ from the adult in that (ideally) an attempt is made to turn the juvenile away from a criminal course.

  1. How did the juvenile justice system begin?

in 1899, concerned citizens of Cook County, Illinois (Chicago) sought to help the many orphans and delinquent youth by establishing the first juvenile court system. The goal was to rehabilitate them, rather than simply incarcerate.

  1. What is parens patriae?

Parens patriae is Latin for ‘the state as parent.’ It describes the logic behind the juvenile justice system.

  1. For what crimes’ may juveniles be tried as adults?

In the modern juvenile justice system, many states have passed statutes which permit prosecutors to transfer juveniles to adult court for capital and other serious crimes including rape, arson, drug trafficking, and similar felonies.

  1. Why are some juveniles charged as adults?

The logic behind charging juveniles as adults rests in the ‘get tough’ approach starting in the 1980s. The idea was that by showing young offenders how tough a life of crime can really be, they would be motivated to avoid criminal behavior.

  1. Which states charge juveniles as adults?

All states have provisions for charging juveniles as adults.

  1. What is the purpose of prison?

The original intent of prison was to force a person convicted of a crime to a penitent life, hence the initial term Penitentiary.

  1. What is organized crime?

Organized crime is the formation of a group for the purpose of building an illegal business empire; often modeled after legitimate businesses, organized crime groups often mask illegal activities with legal enterprises.

  1. What is the difference between organized crime and street gangs?

Street gangs are generally less organized and have a looser heirarchy than organized crime groups, though that distinction is rapidly changing.

  1. What is the Mafia?

Mafia is a tricky term. It originally referred to a Mafioso, or bold male, but by the 1920s, the term was incorrectly used to refer to Italian organized crime families.

  1. What is the Russian Mafia?

Another misnomer, the Russian Mafia refers to Russian organized crime groups, most notably the Bratva.

  1. What is Bratva?

Bratva is a Russian term meaning ‘brotherhood;’ it refers to various organized crime groups originating in Russia and the former states of the USSR.

  1. What is the Black Mafia?

The Black Mafia is a black organized crime group which started in Philadelphia during the early the 20th century. Today, it is known as the Muslim Mafia or PBM (Philadelphia Black Mafia).

  1. What are the Triads?

The Triads are one of the oldest organized crime groups. The Triads are a branch of groups dating to the 1800s with ties to Hong Kong and composed of Chinese-speaking members throughout the world.

  1. What is MS-13?

MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) is a predominately Salvadoran organized crime/street gang which originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and has grown to become a dominant force in illegal drug smuggling.

  1. What is racketeering?

Racketeering is derived from the term ‘racket’ which is a form of fraud or graft. A racket is a service offered to solve a problem created by those offering the service such as ‘protection.’

  1. What is a RICO Charge?

RICO laws (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) were passed in 1970 to provide law enforcement with the tools needed to fight organized crime. A RICO charge is a set of inter-related charges against organizing members of a crime syndicate.

  1. What are the largest organized crime groups?

By revenue, Fortune Magazine ranks the five largest organized crime groups in America as the Bratva, the Japanese Yakuza, the Italian Mafia group Camorra, the Italian Mafia group ‘Ndarangheta, and the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel.

  1. What are the newest organized crime groups?

New organized crime groups are formed almost daily, as groups form to commit online fraud schemes and drug lords suffer death and arrest, making this an impossible question to answer.

  1. What crimes do organized crime groups commit?

Organized crime tends to offer vices such as illegal gambling, drugs, and prostitution, but in recent decades has branched out into human smuggling, arms, toxic waste dumping, and Internet fraud.

  1. What is crime?

Crime is any act which has been determined by a governing authority to be illegal.

  1. What is a political crime?

A political crime is a crime which has no immediate victim other than the state.

  1. What is a white-collar crime?

White-collar crime is criminal acts which involve business interests such as fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion.

  1. Why do some crimes go unpunished?

Even when evidence is strong, a case still must be made that the perpetrator is guilty; the U.S. Criminal Justice System operates on the assumption of innocence with the burden of proof of a crime resting with the state, which at times fails to prove the defendant is guilty.

  1. What is truth in sentencing?

Truth in sentencing statutes vary across the U.S. states, but generally, the goal is to reduce or eliminate possibilities of parole so that those convicted serve the entire sentence meted out.

  1. What is prosecutorial misconduct?

Prosecutorial misconduct may be any action which violates the law in order to secure a conviction, but most often refers to suppression of evidence, witness tampering, and corrupt practices by anyone in the office of the prosecution during a trial.

  1. What is forensics?

Forensics is the science of matching evidence to a crime with a view to determining the perpetrator.

  1. How do forensic scientists help investigations?

Forensic scientists match physical (and electronic) evidence to elements of a crime scene to suspects in the crime. Some of the most common forms of evidence involve fingerprints, DNA evidence, and ballistics.

  1. What is rape?

Rape is a violent, intentional, and unwanted sexual assault of a person by another.

  1. What is murder?

Murder is the illegal taking of a life.

  1. What is extortion?

Extortion involves the use of threats to acquire something of value, usually money. Kidnapping is a form of extortion.

  1. What is fraud?

Fraud is an intentional act of deception used to steal from another.

  1. What is embezzlement?

Embezzlement is the misappropriation of funds, supplies, or anything of value from a person or organization by the one entrusted to protect said items.

  1. What is arson?

Arson is the intentional setting of a fire, often for personal gain.

  1. Who is the most notorious criminal in history?

This is a matter of taste. Some notables include John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Jim Jones, Al Capone, and James Holmes.

  1. What is the worst prison in the world?

Because of the psychologically-destructive nature of the facility, Petak Island Prison, in Vologda, Russia is perhaps the worst prison to which anyone could be sentenced. The small cells provide total isolation without running water and lavatory, stripping not only human dignity but also health from inmates.

  1. What is the toughest prison in the world?

Only the tough can survive Sabaneta Prison. Located in Maracaibo, Venezuela, this facility houses the most hardened inmates in a nation with the second-highest murder rate in the world. Making matters worse is the very low rate of inmates to guards (150:1) and overcrowding so that the prison is largely run by the gangs within.

  1. What is the toughest police force in the world?

As frightening as the Mexican Drug Cartels are, they fear the Mexican Marines. Tasked with getting control of the severe drug-related violence in the nation, the Mexican Marines have become one of if not THE toughest police forces in the world.

  1. Where are the strictest laws in the world?

North Korea is considered the last true Communist nation in the world and rightfully so. The Government controls everything. Period.

  1. Where are the most lenient laws in the world?

Aside from strict gun control, Sweden has the most liberal laws in the world.

  1. What is the purpose of law?

The purpose of law is to provide a consistent framework for social order.

  1. Is the U.S. Criminal Justice System ‘broken?’

The U.S. Criminal Justice System is not without faults, but ‘broken’ is hardly the proper term. In fact, the system largely acts as it was designed to do, protecting the rights of the accused as well as the rights of victims to justice.

At CriminalJusticeLaw.org, our mission is to inform students of criminal justice and law such that these have the resources and tools needed to continue keeping the scales of justice as balanced as possible. Perfect balance is never possible, but each of us can do our best to come as close to the ideal as possible.