Justice System Overview

A Brief Overview of the Virginia Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice process begins when a crime is reported to the sheriff’s office, state or local police department, or a magistrate.  For felonies, there is usually an investigation, and then a warrant of arrest is issued for the defendant.  Subpoenas are issued directing the victim and witnesses to be present in court at a certain date and time.

TYPES OF CHARGES – There are two types of criminal charges in Virginia: misdemeanors and felonies.

MISDEMEANORS are any crimes that is punishable by a maximum sentence of twelve months and a fine of not more than $2,500.00, or both.  Common examples include: assault and battery, trespass, petit larceny, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and destruction of property.  A defendant is tried on misdemeanor charges in either the General District Court or the Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court.  Cases involving juveniles or family members, whether they are the victims or the defendant, are tried in the Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court.  All other misdemeanor cases are tried in the General District Court.  A Judge shall hear the evidence and determine the defendant’s guilt or innocence.  Once convicted and sentenced, the defendant is entitled to appeal the sentence and conviction to the Circuit Court for a new trial.

FELONIES are any crimes for which a person can be placed in the penitentiary for a period of at least one year or more.  Common examples of felonies are burglary, rape, robbery, murder, grand larceny, and forgery and uttering.  If a felony warrant has been issued, a preliminary hearing is held in the General District Court or Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court.  At the preliminary hearing, the Court determines whether there is probably cause that a felony was committed.  If the Judge determines that a felony offense was committed and that the defendant committed the crime, then the case is certified by the Judge to be presented to the Grand Jury.  The actual trial of all felony cases takes place in the Circuit Court.

GRAND JURY – By statute in Rockbridge County and the City of Lexington, the Grand Jury meets five times a year.  The Grand Jury generally meets on the first Monday of February, May and November, July and September.  If the Grand Jury, which is a body of between five and seven citizens, determines that there is probable cause that the defendant has committed a crime, then a “True Bill” is returned and the case is set for trial in the Circuit Court.  In the Circuit Court, the Judge, defendant, or Commonwealth’s Attorney can elect to have the case heard by a jury.  If the case is not heard by a jury, then the Judge will hear the evidence and determine guilt or innocence; and if the defendant is found guilty, the Judge will sentence the defendant.  If there is a trial by jury, then the jury hears the evidence and decides guilt or innocence.  If the defendant is found guilty, the jury shall recommend the appropriate sentence.

SENTENCING – In Circuit Court, if the defendant is found guilty, then the defendant is entitled to a pre-sentencing report which is prepared by a probation office who investigates the defendant’s prior criminal history, social and economic background.  For most felonies committed after January 1, 1995, the Judge must also consider sentencing guidelines which have been prepared by the State and has a recommended range of punishment based upon the crime with which the defendant is charged and his prior criminal history.

PAROLE – Parole has been abolished in Virginia.  The actual sentence that a defendant must serve is difficult to calculate and is subject to change by the legislature.  However, as the law currently stands in Virginia, a defendant will generally serve fifty percent (50%) of the sentence imposed for a misdemeanor conviction and eighty-five percent (85%) of the sentence imposed for a felony conviction.  The law currently provides that any person sentenced to a term of incarceration for a felony offense may petition the Parole Board for conditional release after reaching 65 years of age and serving at least 5 years of the sentence imposed or after reaching 60 years of age and serving at least 10 years of the sentence imposed.

APPEALS – Each defendant is entitled to seek an appeal from conviction and, if the appeal is granted, it will initially go to the Virginia Court of Appeals.  From there an appeal may be made to the Virginia Supreme Court.  Appeals of capital murder cases go directly to the Virginia Supreme Court.