Criminal Court Systems and Their Purpose

American Criminal Court Systems and Their Purpose
The United States Supreme Court building. The U.S. Supreme Court is at the top of the criminal court systems in the country.

Criminal court systems are society’s way of processing criminal cases. Considering the variety of criminal cases, there are also varied processes in criminal court systems. In the United States, a criminal case is processed through the hierarchy of the court system. In this hierarchy, the criminal case starts at the state level and may proceed upward until it reaches the United States Supreme Court. However, the courts involved in these systems are not necessarily dedicated only to criminal cases because they also handle civil cases. There are overlaps between the civil court systems and the criminal court systems because they may use the same courts.

This article discusses the different criminal court systems in the United States, and the purpose of these court systems in serving society. The article focuses on the handling or processing of criminal cases, and how each criminal court system contributes to society’s aims of addressing violations of the law.

How many different court systems are there in the United States?

The criminal court systems for handling cases in the United States are usually distinguished from each other in terms of their jurisdiction, indicating differences in scope and the governments they represent. In this regard, there are two court systems in the United States, as follows:

  • State court system
  • Federal court system

The United States is composed of states that are not completely under the power of the federal government. This means that the federal government has limited powers, and the states also have limited powers relative to the federal government. The state governments and the federal government are different but not entirely separate or independent from each other. There are some criminal cases that can be brought from the criminal court systems of the states to the criminal court system at the federal level. This means that there is partial interdependence between the two systems.

What is the purpose of each criminal court system and how do they serve society?

The purpose of the two court systems in the United States is to ensure the processing of criminal cases, while respecting the constitutionality of state and federal governments. The two court systems are based on the constitutional requirement that there should be a system of courts in the state judiciary and a system of courts in the federal judiciary. Another purpose of the two criminal court systems is to ensure that the states can exercise judicial power within their respective jurisdictions, even in the presence of the federal government.

At the state level, the purpose of the criminal court system is to address the judicial needs that are specific to state requirements. These judicial needs pertain to penalties on criminals. Criminal cases are mainly heard within state criminal court systems. There are state criminal courts that impose the death penalty, while some state courts do not.

At the federal level, the criminal court system is mainly concerned with criminal cases that have not been resolved in the state criminal court systems. When a criminal case is escalated through the state court system, but the case remains unresolved or there are valid challenges to the decisions of the state courts, the case is brought to the federal criminal court system. Thus, in some ways, the federal court system can serve as an extension of the state court system.

  • Ebbe, O. N. (Ed.). (2013). Comparative and international criminal justice systems: Policing, judiciary, and corrections. CRC Press.
  • Neubauer, D., & Fradella, H. (2013). America’s courts and the criminal justice system. Cengage Learning.
  • Office of Justice Programs (2015). The Justice System [Opens in New Window]
  • United States Courts (2015). Criminal Cases [Opens in New Window]
  • United States Courts (2015). Understanding Federal and State Courts [Opens in New Window]
  • United States Department of Justice (2015). Steps in the Federal Criminal Process [Opens in New Window]

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