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Criminal laws are the means by which the social behavior and conduct of individuals and institutions is regulated and enforced. Criminal laws generally concern crimes committed with an intent to injure–murder, rape, burglary, theft, robbery, etc. The crime is considered to be committed against the state or community, rather than against the individual victim, and accordingly, it is prosecuted on behalf of the people of the state.
Both the federal government and each state have enacted laws defining criminal conduct. Federal and state laws are wide-ranging and intertwine in all aspects of society today. From random license checks that lead to vehicle searches, to violent actions against suspects, the criminal process can touch many people. It can be intimidating and often life altering.
Criminal laws also set out the process or procedure for arresting, charging, convicting and sentencing individuals. Defendants (persons charged with a crime) are charged with crimes by federal or state officials and prosecuted by government attorneys known as attorneys general, prosecutors or district attorneys. Federal and state governments have varying criminal procedures, although all criminal procedures, taken as a whole, are ideally designed to protect a defendant’s constitutional rights. A defendant has many rights, including the right to a public and speedy trial, to confront his or her accuser, to a trial by jury, to remain silent, and to representation by a competent attorney.
Television has made us familiar with arrests, warrants, trials, sentencing and incarceration. However, the reality is more complicated. Criminal justice depends on a wide-ranging web of statutes, codes, rules and case law before the process is completed.