Phases of the Criminal Process

I have an “arraignment”. What does that mean?

The phases of a criminal case

If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges here’s a breakdown of the process:

Appearance (Mayor’s Court)

If you’ve been issued a citation (ticket) and are told you need to show up to court, it’s quite possible that you’ll find yourself in Mayor’s Court. A Mayor’s Court is actually not a court at all. It’s a forum where a magistrate will only take a plea: guilty, not guilty, or no contest. You can’t fight your case, but you may be able to make a deal to lower the amount you owe. If you plead not guilty then you go to the next phase…

Appearance (Municipal Court)

At a municipal appearance the judge will take your plea and set bond. If you’re facing a misdemeanor charge the case can be litigated (fought out and decided) at this level. If you’re facing a felony the judge will set your bond and then you’ll be “bound over”. However, it’s possible that your lawyer can work out a deal to reduce your charge to a misdemeanor and keep it at this level without you having to go downtown.

Appearance (County Common Pleas)

An appearance is usually only used to address bond for an incarcerated (jailed) defendant. If the defendant is already out on bond, then this step is generally bypassed.

Arraignment (County Common Pleas)

If you’re “bound over” that means that your case (and maybe you) will be sent downtown to the Common Pleas Court. At the arraignment the judge will take your plea and may listen to a bond request from your attorney.


This stage is when your attorney and the prosecutor exchange evidence and negotiate. Dates for trial are set and plea deals are negotiated.


This is the ultimate step in a criminal case. If you’ve reached this stage it means that no plea deal has been reached or you’ve rejected them all. Now it’s all or nothing. If you win at trial you go home free, but if you lose, you face the full possible punishment of the law. Trials are not like what you see in movies. It’s not often that you win on a technicality or get acquitted. If you go to trial, you’re at the mercy of the judge or a jury of 12 random people who don’t know you.


This happens for anyone who either plead guilty or was found guilty at trial. The judge has the ultimate say on what your sentence is within the bounds of the law. Judges listen to a variety of factors including the weight of your crime, your role to your family or people you support, your involvement in the community, and your likelihood to get in trouble again.

Post-Conviction Relief

After the judge hands you the sentence there are some options to help you out after you’ve completed it. Many crimes can be sealed, this is commonly known as an expungement. If you’ve been given several years of jail, it’s possible to ask the judge to release you early for good behavior. If something unfair happened at your trial you could ask the Court of Appeals to consider it, and if successful you could get a new trial.

The best advice in any of these phases is to contact an attorney. A knowledgeable attorney will provide the guidance and representation you need to get you through the criminal process. Don’t think that just because you watched Law & Order or took a criminal justice class that you know the law. Mistakes like that can land good people in jail. If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges, contact an attorney so that you have the best chance of getting a good outcome.

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