Criminal Justice Process and Data
In Pennsylvania, the court processes and procedures for handling criminal charges vary dependent upon whether the accused person is an adult over the age of 18, or a juvenile between the ages of 10 and 18. Despite the differences in court processes, there are some similarities between the adult and juvenile systems. Located on this page, you will find information and data regarding police, victims, prosecutors, defense attorneys, courts, sentencing and incarceration and supervision.
If you are interested in finding out more about juvenile specific data and the juvenile justice process click here
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When a potential criminal act is committed, the first step in both the criminal and juvenile justice systems is an investigation conducted by police. If, after investigation, the police determine there is enough evidence to establish the identity of the perpetrator and enough evidence that a crime occurred, criminal charges will be filed by the appropriate law enforcement agency.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, there are state level, county level and municipal level police officers. The Pennsylvania State Police
(PSP) was created in 1905 and consists of 16 Troops located throughout the Commonwealth. PSP troopers investigate crime and also assist other law enforcement agencies throughout the Commonwealth. In addition to the troopers who work for PSP, at the state level, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General
houses a criminal law division that includes investigative agents who have statewide jurisdiction to investigate certain types of crime.
There are more than 1,200 municipal police departments, regional police departments and county detective agencies that serve local communities by investigating crimes and filing criminal charges. To find out more about policing, including law enforcement agency data and a map of law enforcement agency coverage in Pennsylvania, click here
Becoming the victim of a crime is neither voluntary nor desired – in Pennsylvania, there are extensive crime victim rights
and services offered both at the state and county levels.
Visit our Office of Victim Services
page to learn about victim rights, victim compensation and find other useful information.
for a map of victim service providers in PA.
Once charges are filed against an alleged offender (or juvenile), it is a prosecutor’s responsibility to prove the charges against the accused. A prosecutor is an attorney who works for the government and is responsible for calling witnesses and presenting evidence in court. In order for an alleged offender to be convicted of a crime, evidence must be presented that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed and that the defendant, or person charged with a crime, was the one who committed it.
In Pennsylvania, there is an elected prosecutor called a District Attorney who serves as the chief law enforcement official for each county. Each elected district attorney may also have assistant district attorneys who assist in prosecuting the tens of thousands of criminal cases that are filed each year in the Commonwealth. For additional information about county prosecutors, including a directory and links to all county prosecutor offices in Pennsylvania, you may visit the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association
In addition to county prosecutors, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General
has a criminal law division with attorneys who have jurisdiction to prosecute certain crimes statewide and are available to assist county prosecutors in specific situations.
According to the United States Constitution, every person (whether adult or juvenile) who is charged with a crime has the right to a criminal defense attorney. A criminal defense attorney is an attorney whose responsibility is to represent the rights of an accused offender in court. If the accused is able to afford an attorney, they may hire a private attorney of their choosing. To find out more about criminal defense lawyers in Pennsylvania, you may visit the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
If the accused is unable to afford a criminal defense attorney, they may seek the assistance of a public defender, or, a judge may appoint an attorney to represent them. In Pennsylvania, every county has a public defender’s office that serves indigent defendants. For a listing of public defender offices in Pennsylvania, you may visit the Pennsylvania Legal Aid
site or find out more by visiting the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania
In 2021, the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee published a report regarding indigent defense funding in Pennsylvania. The report can be found by clicking here
In most of Pennsylvania, when criminal charges are filed against an alleged offender, they are filed with a Magisterial District Court
. In Philadelphia County, charges are initially filed in Philadelphia Municipal Court
. These base-level courts
are typically responsible for setting bail and holding a preliminary hearing to determine if criminal charges should be moved forward in the criminal justice process to trial.
Again, in the majority of the Commonwealth, the trial phase of the criminal justice process is held at the Court of Common Pleas
for each county (there are 60 total judicial districts, but each county has a Common Pleas Court). However, in Philadelphia County, some trials are held at the Philadelphia Municipal Court
. At the trial level, a criminal defendant can have a trial in front of a judge or jury, or plead guilty to one or more charges that have been filed against them. If a criminal defendant is convicted of one or more crimes, they will be sentenced by the trial court.
For court related data, please visit our Court Data page here
After a criminal defendant is convicted of a crime (whether they plead guilty, or were convicted after a trial), the Judge will proceed to sentencing the defendant. In Pennsylvania, a convicted offender can be sentenced to pay fines and costs, serve probation, serve a sentence of incarceration or some combination of these options. The type of sentence that a defendant receives can impact the services made available to them. For a more comprehensive description of sentencing, including data and information relating to sentences for criminal defendants, please visit our Sentencing Data page here
As described above in the sentencing section, in Pennsylvania, a convicted offender can be sentenced to pay fines and costs, serve probation, serve a sentence of incarceration or some combination of these options. Offenders who are incarcerated will be incarcerated at either a county jail, or a state correctional institution. If an offender is not sentenced to serve a period of incarceration or is paroled after a period of incarceration, they may be placed on probation and/or parole. For more information about incarceration and community supervision in Pennsylvania, click here
Criminal Justice Data Dictionary (CJDD)
The Pennsylvania Criminal Justice Data Dictionary (CJDD) is a collaborative product of several Commonwealth adult criminal justice agencies. It contains the data elements these agencies currently collect and their individual agency-specific definitions so that criminal justice researchers know what data is available within the Commonwealth adult criminal justice community. Click HERE
to go to the Criminal Justice Data Dictionary webpage.