Information: Criminal Justice System

The following information provides a general overview of the criminal justice process. If you have additional questions, contact the Victim/Witness Program or District Attorney’s Office for clarification. Most people are unfamiliar with the legal words used in the criminal justice system. Many of the terms used are explained in the Glossary section of this website.


From Investigation to Prosecution

When a crime is reported to a law enforcement agency, the agency investigates the crime and may refer the criminal matter to the district attorney's office in the county in which the crime was committed. The prosecutor is the District Attorney or an Assistant District Attorney, who represents the state of Wisconsin. Assistant Attorneys General from the Wisconsin Department of Justice may also prosecute crime through special prosecutions, at the request of district attorneys.


Charging Decision and Criminal Complaint

The prosecutor decides what criminal charges are appropriate against whom. The prosecutor must decide whether there is sufficient evidence against the suspect to prove the alleged crime. He or she must make a reasonable attempt to inform you of a decision not to file charges. When a prosecutor files criminal charges against the defendant, he or she files a criminal complaint with the court. The criminal complaint details the facts and basis for the charges and often contains the written report from the investigating law enforcement agency.


Misdemeanor versus Felony

Criminal procedures vary in a case depending on whether the charge is a misdemeanor or a felony. Criminal cases are either misdemeanor or felony cases depending upon the maximum penalties that could be imposed. A misdemeanor is an offense punishable by imprisonment up to a year in the county jail. Click for a flow chart (PDF) showing procedures related to misdemeanor charges. Felonies are offenses punishable by a year or more in the state prison system. Click for a flow chart (PDF) showing procedures related to felony charges.


Staying Informed Throughout the Court Process

As the victim of a crime you are entitled be informed about the court process. You may request to be notified of the time, place and date of court proceedings and to attend those proceedings. (The only time that you are required to appear in court is when you have received a subpoena to appear.)


Initial Appearance

The first court appearance in a criminal case is the initial appearance. At this hearing a judge may read the defendant his/her rights, the charges against them and set bail. In felony cases, a date is set for a preliminary hearing. In misdemeanors, the initial appearance is also the arraignment where the defendant enters an initial plea.


Preliminary Hearing

In felony cases, the preliminary hearing is the first hearing and comes before the arraignment (the order is reversed in a misdemeanor case). In a felony case, at this hearing the prosecutor must call witnesses (typically law enforcement) to prove that sufficient evidence exists to believe the defendant committed a crime. If the prosecutor proves this, the case continues. If the prosecutor fails to prove that a felony was committed, the case is dismissed. However the prosecutor could recharge the defendant after this dismissal if they have additional evidence, which they did not present at the first preliminary examination.



The arraignment is a hearing at which the defendant will enter a plea of not guilty, guilty, or no contest. The defendant's bail conditions are also reviewed at the hearing. A plea of no contest means that the defendant does not admit their guilt, but concedes that the state can prove them guilty. Pleading guilty or no contest resolves most criminal cases. The defendant's plea of guilty or no contest can be with or without an agreement on disposition from the prosecutor.


Motions and Motion Hearings

Motion hearings are appearances where the judge is asked to take action on legal issues. Motions may be brought prior to or during a trial (for example, the defense may file a motion to limit testimony or exclude certain evidence).


Plea Agreements

The decision of whether to offer a plea agreement and its terms is made by the prosecutor. As a crime victim, you may request to speak with the prosecutor or the prosecutor's designee concerning plea agreements and possible case outcomes.

Where there has been a plea agreement reached, the prosecutor generally will agree to which charges the defendant will plead guilty [or no contest] and what sentence the prosecutor will recommend to the judge. In arriving at the plea offer the prosecutor will take into account many factors including the nature of the crime, its impact on you as a victim, any information he/she learned while conferring with you, the criminal record and background of the defendant and the protection of the community. If a plea agreement is reached, the defendant will enter a plea of guilty or no contest to the agreed upon charges.

The court is not bound by a plea agreement. If the judge does not follow the plea agreement, the defendant is not allowed to withdraw or take back his plea.



If a plea agreement is not made the case proceeds to trial. The trial is a hearing (series of hearings) at which the prosecutor presents evidence in order to prove the defendant’s guilt. A judge or jury must determine whether an accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty of the crime(s) charged. A defendant may be found guilty of all, some, or none of the charges. If the defendant is found guilty, s/he can then be sentenced for that crime by the judge at that time or at a later hearing; if the defendant is found not guilty of a crime, the charge is dismissed. A criminal trial has several parts: Opening Statement: After the jury is selected or waived, the prosecutor and defense will give an opening statement to summarize their positions.
Evidence and Testimony: The prosecutor will call witnesses and present evidence. After the prosecutor has presented his/her case, the defense can present its side of the case. The defense is not required to present any proof, but it can if it wants. (The defendant cannot be forced to testify and may decide not to testify.) If the defense presents evidence, the prosecutor for the state can present additional evidence in response to the defense evidence.
Oral Arguments: Both sides can present an oral argument to the judge or jury.
Jury Instructions: The judge explains the law to the jury and the elements that the jury must decide on.
Jury Deliberation: The jury goes to a jury room to decide whether the state has proven its case. If the jury finds that the state has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the charged crime, they will find him/her guilty. If the jury finds that the state has not proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt, they must find the defendant not guilty.
Verdict: If a defendant is found not guilty, the case is dismissed and the defendant is released from any conditions of bail. If the defendant is found guilty, the court will schedule a sentencing hearing.



If the offender is found guilty or pleads guilty, the defendant will be sentenced. Prior to the sentencing of the defendant, the judge may consider additional information provided by the prosecution and defense and a pre-sentence investigation report. A pre-sentence investigation report is a report prepared by the Department of Corrections that details the defendant’s personal and criminal history. The court will also consider information provided to the court by victims who have a right to provide the judge with a written and/or oral Victim Impact Statement.


Victim Impact Statement

A victim impact statement is a written and/or oral statement provided to the court at the time of sentencing. The statement may include information about how the crime affected you physically, financially and emotionally. The victim/witness specialist can assist you in preparing your statement.


Disposition and Post-Conviction Information

Victims of crime have the right to be informed of the outcome (disposition) of the case. If you requested disposition information, the DA's office will provide that information to you after the sentencing.


If the offender was sentenced to prison you also have a right to receive information about many post-conviction actions (such as petitions for release or DNA testing) by registering with the Department of Corrections. Contact the Department of Corrections, Office of Victim Services and Programs for further assistance or questions about notification (800) 947-5777.