The following Glossary of Terms is a limited resource on the criminal justice system and the political process. The glossary offers information about the judicial process for defendants as well as a sense of the initiative process for citizens. Terms are hyperlinked from all criminal justice and political process terms that appear elsewhere on this site.

Alternative Sentencing
A sentence that serves as an alternative to incarceration. In many states, alternative sentencing efforts include required community service, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, psychiatric rehabilitation, and some educational or vocational programs. Every state in the US has some form of "alternative" punishments.

Following a conviction, the convicted person may apply for his or her case to be brought before a higher court in order to "appeal" the previous judgment of the case. All states allow some kind of appeals process, but it varies from state to state. Most allow two appeals: one "as of right" to an intermediate appeals court, and the second as a "discretionary" appeal to the state's highest appeals court. The second appeal is called discretionary because the court can decide whether or not to take the case. The intermediate appeals court has no choice about taking the first appeal.

A legal judgement, by a jury or judge, that a defendant is not guilty of the crime charged against him or her.

The appearance before the court by a person charged, in which the person is officially advised of the charges against them. They are asked to respond by pleading guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere (meaning that they do not plead at all).

The detainment of a person by the authority of the law in which they are not free to leave the custody of the police. A person is arrested when there is "probable cause" to believe that person has committed a crime.

Ballot Initiative (Initiative Process for Citizens)
The ballot initiative is a process by which citizens can mobilize to place an issue of public concern on the ballot for a popular vote. The ballot is the sheet of paper or electronic device that is used by citizens to vote for politicians and initiatives. In California "Three Strikes and You're Out" was a ballot initiative that got on the ballot through the initiative process. The process of getting an initiative on the ballot often involves 1) getting a petition signed with a certain number of signatures, 2) lobbying in the state legislature by citizen interest groups, 3) the creation of a referendum or bill to be voted on, and 4) the ratification of the state's law. Organizations like think tanks and citizen advocacy groups play an important role in the background research and writing required to get a ballot initiative passed.

As of May 1999, the constitutions of 26 states authorize lawmaking by the electorate itself. In 21 of these states, citizens may initiate or enact ordinary legislation. In these and three additional states (Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico), voters can require the legislature to refer enactments to the electorate for approval or rejection. Finally, in two more states (Florida and Illinois) the voters' rights are limited to the initiation of state constitutional amendments.

A legal judgement, based on the decision of a jury or judge, that a defendant is guilty of a crime in which they were tried in court.

Criminal Code
Laws written by legislatures at the federal and state level that determine crimes that are punishable by incarceration, fines or other penalties.

A serious violent or non-violent crime (contrasted with a misdemeanor) which is punishable by more than one year in prison, or in some cases, by the death penalty. For example, murder, extortion and kidnapping are felonies. Most drug offenses and residential burglaries are felonies. However, the criminal code for felonies varies slightly from state to state.


A legal proceeding in which arguments and witnesses are heard by a judicial officer or body. Trials are a particular form of hearing. There are also pre-trial hearings (for instance, when a court decides whether or not a confession was given "voluntarily") and post-trial hearings (for instance, the sentencing hearing). All states have hearings, although the precise subject matter and timing of hearings vary from state to state.

A formal document of charges issued by a prosecutor to a grand jury — the jury that examines accusations against persons charged with crime and makes formal charges on which the accused persons are later tried. If the grand jury believes that the charges would lead to a conviction (if proved by the prosecutor), they issue an indictment.

The imprisonment of someone, by a judge or jury, who has been charged and convicted of a crime.

Judicial Process for Criminals
Though the judicial process varies slightly from state to state, there are certain procedures that are consistent throughout all states. The judicial process for defendants happens in the following chronological order: 1) Arrest, 2) Arraignment, 3) Bail Hearing, 4) Indictment or Preliminary Hearing, 5) Plea Negotiations, or Out of Court Settlement (in civil cases only) 5) Trial, resulting in Conviction, Acquittal or Mistrial 7) Sentencing, and 8) Appeal.


Legislate (Legislative, Legislature)
The process by which laws are written, voted on, and enacted at the state and federal level. One house of the legislature (either the Senate or the House of Representatives) considers a bill, first in the committee and later on the floor of the house. The approved bill is then sent to the chief executive (the President or the Governor) who can either sign the bill into law or veto it. The legislature can override a veto by a supermajority vote (usually two-thirds).

The process by which citizens and advocacy groups can directly represent their interests and political platforms in front of legislative bodies in states.

Mandatory Sentencing
Mandatory Sentencing requires that, after a conviction, a judge sentence the offender according to a predetermined sentence as defined by law. Mandatory sentencing requires that the judge apply a "formula" according to the crime committed. "Three Strikes"-type laws are, in many cases, mandatory sentences, because they require courts to impose pre-determined "fixed" sentences for habitual offenders.

A crime, not as serious as a felony, for which the punishment is imprisonment for one year or less in a jail or local facility and/or a fine. Petty theft and certain drug offenses (possession of a small amount of marijuana without intent to sell) are examples of misdemeanors. However, the criminal code for misdemeanors varies slightly from state to state.

Non-Violent Crime (Non-violent Offender)
A misdemeanor or felony in which the offender has not committed or threatened an act of violence against another person. Some non-violent crimes are misdemeanors, i.e. petty theft, possession of small amounts of drugs, or solicitation of prostitution. Other non-violent crimes, such as embezzlement or fraud, are felonies. What is considered a violent or non-violent crime generally varies from state to state.

Parole (Parole Board)
The conditional release of a prisoner from imprisonment into legal custody. The parole board makes risk assessments and oversees the conditional release of prisoners to the public. The prisoner must report to a parole officer as defined by the parole board. A person is eligible for parole after serving a predetermined amount of time. The parole board will grant parole to an eligible prisoner who presents a low risk of committing another crime after release. Good behavior while in prison is one indicator of such a low risk. 15 states have abolished parole in the last 20 years.

Plea Negotiations
Prosecutors often engage in plea negotiations to obtain a conviction in a criminal case, either to avoid a time-consuming trial or because they lack the evidence to convict the defendant on the arrest charge. A plea agreement generally involves the defendant pleading guilty to a specified offense (often less serious than the original charge) and may also include a sentencing recommendation by the prosecutor to the judge.


Rainey Bill
In response to the first "Three Strikes" initiative, Richard Rainey, a former Contra Costa Sheriff and Republican Assembly member, introduced a bill that proposed a version of "three-Strikes," which would have been tougher on violent felons and more lenient on non-violent felons. For instance, unlike the current law, it required that the third strike triggering a mandatory sentence of 25-years to life had to be a violent offense. The bill was never voted on.

The process of formally changing, approving, and sanctioning a law.

A measure submitted to popular vote from a state legislature or from a popular initiative. The process of getting a referendum on a state ballot is called the initiative process. If it is a popular initiative, it usually requires that a lobby group petition for a number of signatures and then make a formal presentation to the state legislature. Not all states have the referendum process. List of states that allow some form of referendum or initiative process.

Settlement (Out of Court)
The act of awarding or giving possession of money, an estate or other income to a victim, often as a way to avoid court and civil or criminal charges.

"Three Strikes and You're Out"
The "Three Strikes and You're Out" Law for three-time offenders was first implemented in 1993 in Washington State. California soon followed in 1994 with a broader version of the law. Since, "three strikes"-type laws have been implemented with wide variations in 24 states. The California law requires that when a person is convicted of three felonies, he or she must serve a mandatory fixed sentence of 25 years to life usually without parole. However, what is considered a "strike" and what is considered "out" varies significantly from state to state. For example, in Washington state, all of the strikes must fall under specific violent crimes that are defined by the law. But in California, only the first two crimes must be "three-strike" crimes, but the third can be any felony. In addition, some states have variations on "three-strikes" laws that include "two-strikes" penalties and "four-strikes" penalties. For example, Montana requires mandatory life in prison without parole for two violent offenses, such as deliberate homicide or aggravated kidnapping, as defined in their criminal code. Not all 24 states require life in prison without parole in their "three-strikes"-type laws. (Note: the federal government has passed a "three-strikes" law of its own. It applies to people who are charged with a federal crime, to be tried in the federal court system.)

The formal process before a judge or judge and jury of proving the guilt or innocence of a person suspected of committing a crime. A trial leads either to the conviction or acquittal of a defendant. A mistrial can be declared in some cases when a jury fails to agree unanimously on a verdict or when proper procedures have been violated. In these cases, a new trial is scheduled. A trial by jury must be available to a defendant who is charged with a "serious" crime (defined as a crime punishable by more than six months incarceration). For "petty" crimes, the trial can take place in front of a judge rather than a jury. However, a defendant might waive a jury trial and request a bench trial even when charged with a serious crime.

Violent Crime (Violent Offenders)
A serious felony that includes real or threatened violence toward a person. Violent crimes include murder, rape, and in some states, certain drug trafficking offenses and residential burglary. In many states, "three strikes" type laws are for violent habitual offenders only, while in other states, all felonies are punishable under "three strikes."

Sources: This glossary was created in May of 1999 from a compendium of sources including two online sources, The Missouri Victim Assistance Network and Shark Talk: Everybody's Law Library, as well as print sources from the National Conference of State Legislatures and Michael J. Moore's The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics and Prisons transcript.