Fraud Blocker

A criminal prosecution occurs when the government (state or federal) charges an individual with the commission of an act that is forbidden by statute and punishable either by imprisonment or by a fine. The criminal process is the most highly formalized of any adjudicatory proceeding. Criminal proceedings vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, though generally are highly structured processes established by statute, court rule, or long tradition. Forensic psychologists play an important role at many stages of a criminal case, including pre-trial, during the trial, and at the sentencing stage. Some examples of pretrial involvement by forensic psychologists include conducting evaluations regarding a defendant’s competency to stand trial or mental status at the time of the offense. Forensic psychologists may also be asked to conduct a presentence evaluation, which may focus on a defendant’s dangerousness, treatability, competency to be sentenced or executed, or sentence mitigation factors. A psychological evaluation of their client can help the defense attorney better understand their client’s functioning and thus help them plan their defense. Throughout the trial, a forensic psychologist can work behind the scenes as a consultant for either the prosecution or defense, to help them frame lines of questioning and notice the strengths and weaknesses of the other sides argument as to the defendant’s mental health and how that impacts the case, as well as review any psychological testing data being used by either side in their case. During disposition, a risk assessment can help the judge determine if treatment is a viable option to incorporate into the sentence.

Throughout the stages of a criminal prosecution noted below, consider if a forensic psychologist could be helpful to you. If you are not sure, call us for a consult!

  1. Criminal Investigation – A criminal investigation is initiated by law enforcement. During this stage, they may interview any witnesses, victims, people of interest, execute a search warrant, etc., in hopes of making enough of a case so they can arrest a suspect.
  2. Detention – An individual may be detained if there is “probable cause,” to believe a person has committed the crime charged. Information constituting probable cause can come from direct police observation, reports from informants, or complaints by ordinary citizens.
  3. Booking – After the defendant is arrested, they are brought to the station house, where appropriate paperwork is completed, they are fingerprinted, and photographed.
  4. Initial Hearing – As soon as possible after the arrest (usually within 48 hours), a hearing occurs where the accused learns more about their rights and the charges against them, and arrangements are made for them to have an attorney. This takes place in front of a judge who then decides if the defendant will be held in prison or released until trial. This decision is based on facts about the defendant such as their living situation, prior criminal record, seriousness of the case against them, and other relevant factors.
  5. Defensive Motions and Discovery – The prosecution shares information, documents, and evidence related to the case with the defendant, as defendants are entitled to receive all information the prosecution plans to use at trial (e.g., victim/witness statements, police reports, etc.) At this stage, motions may be filed prior to trial by either the defense or the prosecution, and usually involve legal issues they want resolved prior to trial. Common examples include motions to dismiss charges or motions to suppress certain evidence so that it cannot be presented at trial.
  6. Arraignment – Although the arraignment is sometimes used to refer to step 4 (i.e., the initial hearing) and they can occur on the same day, this is a stage where the accused pleads, which may not occur until after the hearing, especially for felonies. In most states, there are four possible pleas: guilty (i.e., saying you did the crime), not guilty (i.e., saying you did not do the crime), not guilty by reason of insanity (i.e., you did the crime, but there’s a reason related to your mental health that you should not be held accountable for it), and nolo contendere (i.e., saying you will not contest the state’s charges). At this stage, many cases are disposed of through a bargained plea, which is when a defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser punishment that has been agreed upon by the defense counsel and prosecutor.
  7. Trial – The trial is a structured process that takes place in a courtroom where the facts of a case are presented to a jury or a judge, and a decision is made regarding whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the charge offered. During trial, the prosecutor uses witnesses and evidence to prove to the jury that the defendant committed the crime(s), while the defendant, represented by an attorney, also tells his side of the story using witnesses and evidence.
  8. Disposition: Sentencing and Commitment – If the defendant is found guilty, they return to court for a sentencing hearing. This is usually much more informal than a trial, though both sides are given the opportunity to present evidence for the judge to take into consideration when imposing a sentence.


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