Criminal Law - An Overview

Criminal law addresses the government's prosecution of individuals who have committed an act classified as a crime.

A "crime" is any act, or omission of an act, in violation of a public law forbidding or commanding it. Though there are some common law crimes, most crimes in the United States are established by local, state, and federal governments. Criminal laws vary significantly from state to state.

Criminal law, also referred to as penal law, includes all of the laws that are enacted by the federal government, or by any state government that can make individual actions illegal. Criminal law is usually enforced by the government and the punishments can vary greatly, depending on the severity of the offense. Criminal punishment differs depending upon the country and even the state. In the United States, criminal law varies in severity from misdemeanors to felonies. There are degrees associated with various crimes that help to indicate more nuances in the offense, and a more serious crime will carry stiffer penal consequences.

Crimes include both felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies, or more serious offenses such as murder or rape, are usually punishable by imprisonment of a year or more. Some felonies may be punishable by the death penalty. Misdemeanors are crimes that are less serious offenses, like petty theft or jaywalking, and are usually punishable by less than a year's incarceration. However, no act is a crime if it has not been previously established as such either by statute or common law. Recently, the list of federal crimes, dealing with activities extending beyond state boundaries or having special impact on federal operations, has grown.

The system of criminal law includes the entire criminal law process – from investigation and arrest, to conviction and sentencing – and the people who play a role in that process: the accused, police officers, prosecuting attorneys, bail bondsmen, criminal defense attorneys, judges, witnesses, probation officers, and corrections officers.

There is a process that must be followed to prosecute someone under criminal law. The prosecution of a criminal does not officially begin until a judge issues a complaint or a grand jury issues an indictment. A criminal trial will follow, and during this trial the prosecution will be required to supply evidence that the individual in question committed the guilty act. There are criminal cases based on criminal intent without an act being carried out as well—these cases are considered liability cases.
As in all criminal trials, a person's constitutional rights as well as the rights granted to us by various amendments are there to help ensure a fair trial. The standard of proof in a criminal case is that the defendant does not have to prove anything; instead, it is the prosecution's responsibility to provide evidence to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is unlike a civil case, in which clear and convincing evidence is all that is necessary for a guilty verdict.

The consequences of breaking criminal laws range from warnings to very serious punishments. Capital punishment is the most severe. In the states that allow capital punishment, various methods are used, including lethal injection and the electric chair. This punishment is reserved for the most heinous of crimes, including premeditated murder and extremely violent sexual offenses. For less disturbing offenses, incarceration in jail or prison is a prevalent consequence, with the length of time varying by individual case. Involuntary manslaughter, for example, will carry a much less severe jail term, if any at all, compared to a sentence of murder in the first degree. Other obvious criminal laws cover offenses such as rape, assault and battery, trespassing, embezzlement and theft.

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