How the Criminal Justice System Works

This is the first appearance the defendant makes in court. At this time, the judge informs the defendant of the specific charges against him or her. Conditions are set for release.

The defendant can be held in jail or released on one of the following conditions:

  • after promising to appear at the next court proceeding
  • after posting bond
  • after being released to pre-trial services under supervision of a probation officer

Conditions of the release may include no contact with the victim.

The prosecuting attorney receives police reports and files formal charges and a summary of testimony (trial information). When the trial information is filed, the judge sets a date for arraignment.


At the Arraignment, the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge sets a date for sentencing. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the judge sets a date for trial and a pre-trial conference.


The prosecuting attorney may set up a time to meet with you before trail. This is a good opportunity for you to discuss the case, ask questions, and find out what is expected of you as a witness.

It is possible that an attorney, an investigator, or a paralegal working for the defendant may contact you to talk with you about the case. It's all right for you to ask for identification before you agree to talk to anyone. The decision to talk with the defense is yours, but you are not obligated to talk with them unless you are subpoenaed. The defense may subpoena you for a deposition. At a deposition (formal sworn statement), the defense attorney asks you questions to gather information about the case. The prosecuting attorney will be present at the deposition.

Plea Negotiating is something that takes place between the prosecuting attorney and the defendant and his/her attorney. A plea agreement occurs when the parties reach an agreement on the charge and/or sentence in the case.

You must appear in court and truthfully testify under oath if you are subpoenaed. The subpoena will tell you the date and time you need to be at the courthouse. If you receive a subpoena and have not discussed your testimony with the attorney handling the case, please phone the County Attorney's Office to set up a time to do so.

While you are waiting to testify, you will be asked to sit in another part of the courthouse. You will not be able to sit in the courtroom during the testimony of other witnesses, A victim witness advocate will be available at the courthouse to answer your questions and assist you if you need anything.

  • Always tell the truth.
  • Speak clearly and loudly.
  • If you don't know the answer to a question, or you can't remember, just say so.
  • Dress neatly.
  • Wait until a question is finished to answer and stop speaking if an objection is made.
  • Don't guess. If you have to make an estimate about something, make it clear that you are estimating.
  • Try to remain calm while answering questions.
  • Do not discuss your testimony with other witnesses.

Sentencing usually takes place two to six weeks after a plea or verdict of guilty. Sometimes a Pre-Sentence Investigation is conducted by the Department of Correctional Services in order to gather background information on the defendant and the crime.

You will also get a chance to tell the judge what practical and emotional impact this crime has had on you through a written/oral Victim Impact Statement.

Except in certain violent crimes which require a prison term, judges have a variety of sentencing options at their disposal for each level of crime.

Witnesses are entitled to $10 for a full day of testimony or $5 for a half-day of testimony and receive mileage. If you must come from out of town, the Victim Witness Assistance Program can assist with travel arrangements. If necessary, the Victim Witness Assistance Program can explain the need for your appearance to your employer.

Prior to sentencing, you should receive a Victim Impact Statement and a restitution form in the mail. If for some reason you do not receive the forms, please phone the Victim Witness Assistance Program. By filling out and returning the forms, you will help our office determine how much restitution the defendant should be required to pay you. If you have medical bills or lost income due to injury, you may be eligible for an award from the Iowa Crime Victim Compensation Program. The defendants can also be ordered to repay this fund as restitution.

When the defendant is ordered to pay restitution, a Plan of Payment is setup by the probation officer or prison counselor within 90 days of sentencing. Restitution payments are made by the defendants through the Clerk of Court, who will forward them to the victims of the crimes.