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Criminal Justice System

Criminal laws are designed to control behavior and protect the rights of citizens and society. These laws are enforced by our judicial system. Below is a basic explanation of the criminal justice process, the Mississippi court system and victims’ rights. Gaining a basic understanding of the process helps to relieve a great deal of stress that many victims experience when dealing with the criminal justice process.

Criminal law is enforced through prosecution of defendants (also referred to as perpetrators or offenders). The State seeks legal action against the defendant during this process. If the defendant is found guilty (conviction), he/she may lose their freedom and independence (serve time in jail or prison) and/or may be ordered to pay fines, court costs, assessments and/or restitution.

The jury in a criminal case must be in total agreement to find the offender guilty. If one juror disagrees with the decision of the others, there cannot be a guilty verdict. The result is called a hung jury. The District Attorney will decide any other action on the case when there is a hung jury. The District Attorney can ask for another trial, try to settle the case through plea bargaining or dismiss the case.

MISDEMEANOR AND FELONY CRIMES

Crimes are placed into two general categories: misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors may have a penalty or a fine and/or imprisonment in the county or city jail for one year or less. Some examples of misdemeanors are traffic offenses, domestic violence (first and second offenses), simple assault and driving under the influence – DUI (first and second offenses). Felonies are more serious crimes and may have penalty of imprisonment in the state penitentiary for more than one year or death. Some examples of felony offenses are aggravated assault, rape, child sexual assault, child physical abuse, murder, manslaughter, domestic violence (third offense), DUI (third offense or resulting in injury or death), armed robbery and burglary.

Misdemeanors and felonies are handled in different courts. The defendant in both a misdemeanor and a felony case has the right to a jury trial under our Constitution. A jury trial is automatic in felony cases if the matter goes to trial. The defendant in a misdemeanor case must specifically request a jury trial. Misdemeanors are very rare.

DESCRIPTION OF COURTS

Different courts hear different types of cases. The “jurisdiction” of a case will determine what type of court will hear the case. The “jurisdiction” of criminal cases is determined by the type of crime (felony or misdemeanor) and the location of where the crime took place. Mississippi has several types of courts within our judicial system and each serves a different function. The following is basic information and some of the different courts in Mississippi.

JUSTICE COURT

Justice Courts hear misdemeanor criminal cases that occur within their jurisdiction (county where the court is located). Justice Courts are also authorized to conduct pre-trial proceedings in felony cases. For example, a Justice Court Judge may set the amount of bond, hold bond reduction hearings, and hold preliminary hearings to determine whether there is enough evidence to present a felony case to the Grand Jury.

MUNICIPAL COURT

Every city must have a Municipal Court. These courts hear misdemeanor crimes which occur within the city or town limits.

COUNTY COURT

County courts only exist in twenty counties in Mississippi. County courts are unique because, in certain situations, they have the same jurisdiction as the Justice Courts and Circuit Courts and can hear many of the same cases.

CIRCUIT COURT

Circuit Courts hear felony cases. The State of Mississippi has twenty-two (22) circuit court districts which may contain one or more counties. Most districts have more than one Circuit Court Judge. Circuit Courts have certain time periods during the year when the Court will hear cases in each of the counties served by that court. These periods are called “terms of court”. During all other times, the Court is considered to be “in vacation”. The term “vacation” does not mean that the Judge and his or her support staff are not working. The court may be actually hearing cases in another county within the same district during its term of court.

CHANCERY COURT

Chancery Courts hear matters involving divorce, child custody, visitation and support, guardianships, mental commitments and contract matters. These courts serve as the youth court in counties where there is no county or family court.

YOUTH COURT

Youth Court has exclusive original jurisdiction in all proceedings concerning a delinquent child or child in need of supervision except when a child commits an act or attempts to commit an act which if committed by an adult would be punishable under state or federal law by life imprisonment or death, or commits or attempts to commit an act involving the use of a deadly weapon.

APPELLATE COURT

Our state has two appellate courts; the Mississippi Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. Each is located in Jackson, Mississippi.

These courts only hear cases where a final decision has been made by other courts. Appellate courts do not hear the witnesses or conduct trials. These courts review records and transcripts of the cases from the other courts and in certain cases, they will hear oral arguments by attorneys. Oral arguments are standard in death penalty cases.

The primary function of an appellate court is to review the decisions of other courts and determine whether or not an error occurred in the trial process. An appellate court can uphold the decision of the other court; overturn the decision of the court and return the case for further proceedings; or overturn the decision of the court and make a different decision.

In rare cases, an appellate court will determine that the error committed in a criminal case was so serious that the offender should be discharged.

COURT OF APPEALS

The Court of appeals was established in 1995 to help the Mississippi Supreme Court with the overwhelming number of pending appeals.

All appeals are filed with the Mississippi Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then determined which cases are to be assigned to the Court of Appeals. Decisions of the Court of Appeals are final. However, if a party is unwilling to accept the decision, he/she may ask the Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court can decide whether or not to consider the case.

MISSISSIPPI SUPREME COURT

The Mississippi Supreme Court is the court of last resort in our State. Although the Supreme Court assigns cases to the Court of Appeals, certain cases must be heard by the Supreme Court. These cases include: death penalty cases, election contests, annexation cases and utility rates.