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Court Responses to Domestic Violence

The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the SystemThe Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System

The criminal justice system becomes increasingly complex each year as new laws and decisions can change legal standards dramatically. And at a time when even law enforcement is being affected by hiring freezes and budget cuts, the result is fewer resources and public programs for those accused of crimes, and their friends and families. That's why it's crucial that you have access to clear and complete explanations of all aspects of criminal law and procedure.

The Criminal Law Handbook answers your questions about every part of a criminal case, from cops to crooks. Find out everything you've ever wanted to know about how the system works, and the how and why police, lawyers and judges doing what they do. It covers:

arrestsbookingpreliminary hearings
arraignmentsearch and seizuredefenses
evidencetrialsplea bargains
sentencingjuvenileslanguage in criminal statutes.

Kindle edition available.

Court Matters

Once booked, the arrested person gets arraigned. This is where the charges against them are officially presented to the court, the accused pleads "guilty" or "not guilty" to the charges. If they plead "guilty", which most don't, then the judge schedules further hearings and a sentencing date. If they plead "not guilty", then the case is remanded for trial. The accused can ask to have a public defender attorney assigned if they qualify, or can hire a criminal defense attorney if they don't qualify. It's also at this time that two other important things happen: a bail amount is set, and the judge can issue a restraining order, even if the victim doesn't want one.


The bail amount is set by the judge, and is based on many factors. If the crime was particularly violent, or the court has reason to feel that the accused won't come back for their court date (a flight risk) then the court may set NO bail, and the person will remain in jail until the stages of the trial work their way through the system. If bail IS allowed by the judge, an amount will be set and the arrested person (often through family and friends) will need to pay that amount before they will be released. The bail amount is an amount set aside to make sure that if the arrested person is released, that they will honor their promise to show up on their court dates in the future. If they show up, they get the money back. If they don't show up, then the money paid towards bail is forfeited. If the bail amount is too high for them to raise the money, they can have a bondsman "vouch" for them. The accused pays the bondsman a portion of the bail amount, the bondsman pays the entire amount to the court, and the accused then owes the bondsman the amount plus a service fee. Not showing up to court means the bondsman will be on the hunt for the accused person (think "Dog the Bounty Hunter").

Dropping Charges

One of the most frequent questions we get is "I'm the vicitm, can't I drop the charges?". The simple answer is: no, you can't. Crimes are considered to be committed against ALL members of society, not just the immediate victim. Once a criminal act is reported to authorities, they have a duty to act accordingly. Being the victim of a crime doesn't give the the victim the right to say that it was ok for the crime to be committed. While the victim might feel that way for themselves, they cannot speak for everyone ELSE in society, who have elected officials that have determined that certain actions are crimes.

Similarly, the district attorney (sometimes called the state's attorney) gets elected to run the office that prosecutes crimes. They and their staff get paid to pursue criminal cases, and they take domestic violence crimes very seriously; for good reason. Thirty years of research shows that domestic violence is one of the most frequently repeated crimes, and that those crimes tend to increase in severity over time. Prosecutors would rather deal with cases early on, rather than have to prosecute a murder charge down the road. Prosecutors are also the ones dragged over the coals by the media and friends and family of victims when cases are dropped and the victim is later re-victimized or killed. In other words, if the state thinks they have enough to build a case, expect that they will do so. The stronger their case, the less likely they are to offer a plea bargain.

Changing Stories

Victims in domestic violence cases often recant their story and don't wish to participate in the prosecution of the offender. On average, some 80% of victims will later say that their initial report wasn't true, putting prosecutors (and the jury) in the position of trying to figure out if the initial statement was true, or the current statement is true. Because of this dynamic, prosecutors are experts at letting the "new" version go in one ear and out the other - because both prosecutors and juries tend to believe the ORIGINAL statement given at the time of the offense, and given BEFORE the victim has had time to realize the unforseen consequences that the arrest can have.

Some victims fear retaliation from the offender. Others fear abandonment from the offender. Still others may be dependent upon the offender as the sole means of shelter and financial support, and don't know how they'll get along if the accused is jailed and not able to work and bring home a paycheck. Police agencies and prosecutors are aware of these challenges and can help to get you involved in local programs to help with rent, bills, groceries, and other elements that may be pressuring you to try to discount what happened. Things like domestic violence injunctions can also include child support orders and restitution orders. They DO understand that financial dependency is often a key factor in victims having reluctance to have the offender held accountable for their actions. Your local domestic violence program can also provide assistance and guidance about the many things that may weigh heavily on your mind as you think about the process ahead and how it may impact your family. Keep in mind that the prosecution can proceed with charges against the offender, even without your permission or cooperation, and the state won't drop a case just because it creates a financial hardship.

Victim Participation

It is VITAL that you obey any court-ordered notice to appear. Not showing up if you have received notice to appear is an option that can lead to a warrant for YOUR arrest, and can land YOU in jail for contempt of court. Since the case can go forward even without your testimony, it is in your best interest to be active in the process to hold the offender accountable for their actions, which might include anything from probation and counseling, all the way up to jail time. All states have laws which allow victims to address the court, and give their opinion at various times throughout the process (particularly at sentencing). The prosecutor's office, your local domestic violence program, or BOTH, have advocates that can help you to understand at what stages of the process you can directly participate. If you have difficulties or unforseen problems that might interfere with your testimony, let the prosecutor know or work with advocates from your local domestic violence program. They really ARE on your side and will try to work with you, while STILL moving towards their goal of accountability for the offender.

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Last Updated: March 6, 2011