The sexual abuse
of a child is a felony criminal offense punishable by more stringent sentence than given for misdemeanor offenses. The following are typical legal steps for felony charges.
- The crime is reported.
- County court Arraignment usually occurs within 72 hours of arrest. The defendant is informed of the charges, attorney is obtained, plea is entered, and bond is set. After arraigment, criminal cases are set for early resolution conferences in some jurisdictions.
- Early Resolution Conferences are sometimes scheduled following the Arraignment and occur approximately 3-5 weeks later. Attorneys and unrepresented parties meet with the judge and report on the progress of negotiations, discovery, and pre-trial motions, attempt to resolve the case, and advise whether a trial is needed. Unless a Final Resolution Conference is scheduled, the Early Resolution Conference is the deadline for negotiated pleas unless good cause is shown at a later date.
- Preliminary Hearings occur within 10 days of arrest (or longer if defendant out of jail on bond) in some jurisdictions. Purpose of preliminary hearing is to determine whether there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed, and if this defendant committed that crime. If so, defendant may be bound over to Grand Jury.
- Grand Jury meets within 60 days of preliminary hearing. Evidence is reviewed to determine which charges, if any, to prosecute. Prosecutor is present with the witness before the Grand Jury. No defendant, defense attorney, or judge is present.
- Common pleas court arraignment. Usually within 10 days of Grand Jury indictment, a plea is entered, bond is re-examined, and pre-trial conference time is set.
- Pre-Trial motions are filed and/or a plea agreement is reached. Pre-trial motions may occur if the defendant challenges the legality of the evidence against him (e.g., how evidence was handled or how he was identified and accused of the crime). In the case of a plea bargain, the case reaches a final disposition before the trial. The prosecutor allows the defendant to plead guilty to reduced or different charges. Reasons to plea bargain for the prosecution include a) avoiding time, delay, and expense of a trial; and b) lack of evidence that clearly proves the charge. A plea of guilty to a lesser charge insures the prosecutor that the defendant will at least get some criminal record and sentence. The reasons to plea bargain for the defendant are to accept guilt on a lesser charge and receive a lighter sentence, instead of the possibility of being found guilty on more serious charges, and/or avoid the time and expense of a trial.
- Trial occurs if no plea bargain is reached. The defendant must be found guilt beyond a reasonable doubt by every juror or the judge.
- Pre-sentence investigations occur prior to sentencing and the input and opinion of victim(s) is considered along with the background of the offender and the facts of the case in determining the sentence for the specific charge within limits established by law.
- Sentencing usually occurs several weeks after the trial. The judge is responsible for sentencing the defendant. The defendant's past history, Probation Reports, pre-sentence evaluations, and Victim Impact Statements provide information to the judge and assist in the sentencing process.
- Appeals is the process in which the defendant attempts to overturn a conviction.
Sexual abuse charges may also involve other court hearings. These include Shelter and Dependency Hearings:
- Shelter care hearings are scheduled by child protective services to determine whether the child remains in shelter care pending the Dependency Hearing. This hearing usually occurs within 72 hours of the child's removal from parental care. Reasonable efforts are required to provide notice of the hearing to the parent or guardian. Rules of evidence are relaxed at these hearings, and hearsay is accepted. Indigent parents have a right to appointed counsel. The court will also appoint a CASA volunteer, guardian ad litem, or attorney for the child.
- Dependency hearings include both fact-finding hearings and disposition hearings. The fact-finding hearing considers the allegations of the dependency petition. Fact-finding and dependency disposition hearings often occur at the same time. The agency (child welfare/child protective services) must present a plan and disposition order that provides sufficient detial that the parties and the court understand the course of remedial actions and service compliance that is expected of the parents.
See Guardian Ad Litem
See Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)