What Are The Stages of the Criminal Justice Process in Pennsylvania?

What Are The Stages of the Criminal Justice Process in Pennsylvania?

Not quite step-by-step
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What are the stages of the criminal justice process in Pennsylvania? We understand that knowing what will happen is important if you have been arrested, including at which of the following stages in the criminal justice process is an indigent (qualifies for Public Defender assistance).

The stages of the criminal justice process in Pennsylvania are:

  • The arrest
  • Preliminary arraignment
  • Preliminary hearing
  • Formal arraignment
  • Pretrial conference
  • Omnibus pretrial motions
  • Trial
  • Sentencing
  • Post-sentence motions and appeals
From arrest to sentencing, the criminal justice process in Pennsylvania can be complex. This article outlines the stages you can expect to go through.
MidJourney prompt: a pair of police handcuffs, commercial photograph, on black isolated plain, hyper realistic, stock photo, –ar 4:5 –v 5 –s 250

What Are The Stages of the Criminal Justice System in Pennsylvania?

Last week, I discussed Bill Cosby’s case, which got me thinking that my readers maybe didn’t know what happens after a defendant is arrested. So I created this short informational article to discuss all the steps of the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania.

Book Look

The Commonwealth v. You: A practical guide to the Pennsylvania Criminal Justice System by R. Davis Younts.

Preliminary Stages of The Criminal Justice Process

This is what happens from the arrest to the trial process.

The Arrest

If you are arrested, you will be brought to Central Booking and processed through the system. Some defendants are booked at the individual police stations where the arresting officer is located. Arrestees are kept in holding cells until they can be arraigned on their charges and have bail set.  Arrestees will also be photographs as part of the process, and charging documents will be filled out.

Preliminary Arraignment

The next step is to brought before the duty Magisterial District Judge (MDJ). The MDJ will ask several questions, including the defendant’s address, family ties, employment, and prior criminal history.

This information is used to determine the amount of the bail.  Because the Preliminary Arraignment must occur without unnecessary delay, the Public Defender’s Office will not be able to represent a defendant at this stage.

Preliminary Hearing

After Preliminary Arraignment or after receiving charges in the mail, the defendant will receive information about a Preliminary Hearing.  This hearing will be held at the MDJ’s office.  Some people may recognize this office if they have ever been arrested and charged on a traffic violation, which is a type of criminal charge (usually a summary).

At this hearing, the MDJ will determine whether or not the Commonwealth has established a prima facie case, which basically means that there is enough evidence to show that a crime might have been committed and that the defendant likely was involved in that crime. This standard is not beyond a reasonable doubt, which is required at trial.

Generally, the defendant does not present any evidence at the Preliminary Hearing.  This hearing is for the defendant to hear the Commonwealth’s evidence.  The MDJ is not allowed to weigh the credibility of the witnesses.

The MDJ can choose to dismiss some or all of the charges.  The MDJ can also choose to “bind” the charges over to the Court of Common Pleas.  The defendant will also be given dates for the Formal Arraignment and Pretrial Conference.

The defendant will be given the opportunity before the Preliminary Hearing to contact the Public Defender’s Office, if he or she qualifies for help as indigent.

Formal Arraignment

The purpose of Formal Arraignment is to receive the formal charges, to be advised of important pre-trial rights (such as the right to request discovery, to file pretrial motions, and to enter a formal plea). In some counties, this process happens once per month.

A judge does not preside over the Formal Arraignment, and all defendants always enter a not guilty plea to the charges brought against them.  Defendants will need to sign a form to enter the plea of not guilty, and then they receive a copy, which is called the Informations.

If the defendant has a Public Defender or a criminal defense attorney prior to the Formal Arraignment, he or she will have signed a Waiver of Arraignment at the initial interview.  That means that the form will be submitted on the defendant’s behalf, and the defendant does not need to show up to the Formal Arraignment.

Your attorney will be sent a copy of the Informations.  Your attorney will also file a request for discovery in all cases.

The filing application deadline for the ARD program and any pretrial motions are due no later than 30 days from the date of the Formal Arraignment.

Secondary Stages of The Criminal Justice Process

This is the part of the process where the trial happens.

Pretrial Conference

Pretrial Conferences might be held once per month. In some larger cases or in major cities, the pretrial conference might happen individually. Defendants must show up appear before the assigned judge.

A defendant can enter a guilty plea or the case can be listed for trial.  Many people recognize this hearing from television shows where the judge asks, “How do you plead?” and the defendant will answer “not guilty.”

Many cases are scheduled for the same day.  Defendants will be given time slots and should be prepared to stay for several hours.

Omnibus Pretrial Motions

Your attorney may file a number of pretrial motions that deal with anything from what evidence can be used at trial to getting your case dismissed on an evidentiary matter. The judge will schedule a hearing to discuss it. These hearing are purely legal questions, and so, a jury will not be present.


Defendants have a right to be tried by a jury of their equals in all cases that carry more than six months of imprisonment.  Juries in Pennsylvania consist of 12 jurors, who have been picked from the county that you are arrested in.  Juries must be unanimous in a guilty or not guilty verdict.

Some counties hold jury trials for one week in the month. Some counties hold trials when there is enough room on the court docket. And some counties have “criminal trial” days that are dispersed at the court’s leisure. Usually, defendants must be “on call” or within a thirty-minute radius of the courthouse because they will be given a forty-five-minute notice of trial commencement.

Trial begins with Voir Dire, or the selection of the jury, followed immediately by the trial.

Defendants may also request a bench trial, which is tried before a judge.


If a defendant is found guilty of a crime, or if pled guilty without a negotiated plea agreement on sentencing, then he or she will be sentenced.  Sentencing can take place immediately, or at another date.  If sentencing is scheduled for the future, the Probation Department will complete a pre-sentence investigation report.  This report will make a recommendation to the court about sentencing.

Post-Stages of The Criminal Justice Process

Post-Sentence Motions and Appeals

If the defendant was sentenced without a guilty plea agreement and does not agree with the sentence imposed by the judge, the attorney in the case can file a Motion for Reconsideration of the Sentence.  This motion must be filed within 10 days after the date of sentencing.

Defendants have a right of first appeal, and in death penalty cases, an automatic right to appeal.  An appeal must be filed within 30 days from the date of sentencing.  If a defendant has a Public Defender or qualifies for indigent services with an alternative attorney, then the case will be reassigned to the Appellate Attorney or another alternative.

The Superior Court hears criminal appeals. If the appeal is denied, a defendant may also file a Petition for Allowance of Appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  This appeal is discretionary, which means that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court does not have to take that case, unless it is a death penalty case. Death penalty cases have special rules of procedure.

Defendants also have the right to file an appeal for ineffective assistance of counsel about your trial or appellate attorney, evidence after the fact (such as new DNA evidence), or a number of other grievances against the trial or appeal process.

This appeal is called the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) appeal.  This appeal must be filed within 1 year after the case is final, which is usually when the appeal is denied or sentencing if the defendant did not file an appeal.

At Which Of The Following Stages In The Criminal Justice Process Is An Indigent Qualify For Public Defender’s Assistance?

In most cases, a defendant can receive Public Defender assistance after the preliminary arraignment.  Therefore, you can have a public defender at the preliminary hearing.

What Are The Stages of the Criminal Justice Process?

More general (non-Pennsylvania) specific information can be found here on what are the stages of the criminal justice system.


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