This handbook is provided by the Rhode Island Office of the Public Defender.
It is designed to explain how the criminal justice system works. As unlikely
as it may seem, anyone may someday find him or herself or a family member
suspected of criminal activity or even under arrest.
One of the biggest problems with the criminal justice system is that
most people have no opportunity to find out how it works until it is too
late--until they are charged with a crime and are “in the middle
of it.” It can be a very frightening experience to be taken to court,
whether for a first offense or a fourth. Part of the fear comes from being
in the dark, not knowing what is going to happen and what the process
is all about. It is normal for people charged with a crime to feel some
nervousness: it is a serious event. Too much fear, however, is not necessary
and can be lessened by knowledge of the proceedings.
It is also important for people to know what they can do personally
to help a lawyer prepare a defense. Sometimes a suspect can help his or
her lawyer make it less likely that an arrest will even occur. Some things
a client does, though, may make it very difficult for a lawyer to effectively
defend the case. For example, if a person confesses a crime to the police,
it may be almost impossible to defend the client at a trial or even to
negotiate a good sentence. Defendants who are aware that they do not have
to give statements to the police help to protect themselves. Clients who
understand their rights can make some decisions for themselves about their
cases; the more knowledge one has of the system, the better.
Another purpose of this handbook is to let you know what some of your
general rights are. It will give you some help in knowing what the police
can do and what they can’t do; usually, there is no lawyer immediately
available and decisions must be made. Most importantly, every citizen
ought to know how the criminal justice system works so that the decisions
we all make as citizens in our input to legislative representatives, our
voting in elections, our reactions to events around us and our possible
service as jurors will be better informed.
This handbook is not a substitute for a lawyer or for legal advice. It
can only give overall guidance in what the law provides. Each individual
situation is different from the next and only a lawyer can give advice
geared to a particular problem.
Most of this handbook concerns adults only. A special section, entitled
JUVENILES, explains what happens to minors under the age of 18 who are
charged with offenses. If you have children, you ought to know what the
juvenile offender system is about since the protection of your child is
ultimately your responsibility.