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Criminal Justice 101: Who's Who

Most people who are reported to police for causing sibling sexual trauma have not had contact with the law for any other crime.  Suddenly facing the criminal justice system can be terrifying and overwhelming.  Reality is different than TV, movies, or common beliefs.  Here is a very basic explanation of who’s who, and what they do.  

(I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice.  See guidance on finding a lawyer.)

 

Law Enforcement (aka Police, Sheriff, FBI)

Their job is:

  • To investigate reports of illegal sexual behavior

  • To collect evidence that would be admissible in court

  • To determine if an individual poses an immediate risk to public safety, and make arrests if necessary

 

Their job is not:

  • To determine the whole truth of what happened

  • To decide whether or not a person is charged

 

Prosecution (aka District Attorney, DA, States’ Attorney, Tribal Attorney, US Attorney)

Note: Small departments may have just one “DA.”  In bigger cities, the elected DA supervises an office of line prosecutors, or assistant DA’s, who are assigned to individual cases. To add to the confusion, these assistants are sometimes referred to by the short cut “the DA”.

 

Their job is:

  • To determine if there is sufficient evidence to charge a person with a crime, based on the law and on evidence collected by law enforcement

  • To decide which criminal charges to bring, if any. The final say on whether or not to press charges lies with the prosecutor, not the victim.

  • To represent the government in court when a person is accused of violating a criminal law

  • To be steward of the evidence collected by law enforcement, sharing it with the defense as required by law and handling it in a way that it will be admissible in court if needed

  • To protect the victim and handle the case in a way that upholds the victim’s legal rights.  There is often a staff member or office of victim services who provides support, guidance, and referrals for those who are victims of a reported crime, even if no one is convicted.

  • To work with witnesses, including victims, whose testimony could become evidence in court

 

Their job is not:

  • To represent the victim or the victim’s wishes directly. In modern Western criminal court, the crime is considered to be against the State, not the victim.  This gives the State the authority to sentence those who are guilty.  But it also means that no one is directly representing the victim in criminal court. 

Defense Attorney (either public defender or private lawyer)

Their job is:

  • To represent (appear or speak on behalf of) a person accused of a criminal offense

  • To make sure the defendant understands their legal rights and can exercise them

  • To represent the defendant’s interest through the entire court process 

  • To gain the best possible legal outcome for the person they represent

 

Their job is not:

  • To decide whether the person “deserves” to be defended

  • To be the defendant’s personal therapist or family therapist 

  • They do not, and cannot, report information their client has shared with them that could incriminate the defendant

  • That said, they cannot knowingly lie in court

 

Judge (aka the Bench, the Court)

Their job is:

  • To be an impartial “referee” between the prosecution and the defense

  • To make sure all court business is handled according to the law

  • To make decisions on how the law is applied to each case; for example, whether to charge a teenager as a juvenile or an adult, amount of bail, conditions of bail, requests for delays, what evidence is admissible in court

  • In many places, if a person is convicted or pleads guilty, the judge decides the sentence within a range given by the law

 

Their job is not:

  • To decide the outcome of the case (except in a “bench trial”)

  • To take the side of the victim

 

Additional Resources

The Criminal Justice System Explained San Diego District Attorney’s office--exact process varies by state 

The Justice System Explained infographic of the federal criminal system, from the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics

What to Expect from the Criminal Justice System from the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network