Overview of the Federal Criminal Justice System

A federal fraud case typically involves several different court proceedings. You may or may not be required to appear at those proceedings--it all depends on the number of victims and the federal prosecutor's approach to the case. Often the decision on who is needed to testify is not made until shortly before the trial begins. If you are needed at any court proceeding, the victim/witness coordinator or federal prosecutor will contact you. Even if you are not needed at court proceedings, you are still entitled to receive support services and information about the status of the case.

The U.S. Constitution provides certain rights to persons who have been accused of violating a federal law. Accused persons (also called defendants) have the right to:

As a victim of a crime, you may be required to participate in one or more of the following proceedings:

Preliminary Hearing

The preliminary hearing is held to determine whether the evidence the federal prosecutor has collected shows good reason to proceed with charges against the defendant. Normally, the defendant's attorney (called the defense attorney) will not present any evidence, and the defendant will not testify. At some preliminary hearings, only law enforcement officers testify. At others, both law enforcement officers and witnesses testify.

If you are required to testify at a preliminary hearing, the federal prosecutor will issue a written command (a summons or subpoena) for you to appear at a certain time and place to present evidence. The federal prosecutor or victim/witness coordinator will provide you with additional information about the hearing and what you can expect to happen.

Grand Jury Hearing

Next, a panel of 23 citizens (a grand jury), randomly selected and residing in the same judicial district (jurisdiction of the court), meets privately with the federal prosecutor to examine the evidence against the defendant. The federal prosecutor may require law enforcement officers and witnesses to testify. The defendant and his or her attorney are not present and are not allowed access to the information or testimony given.

The grand jury then determines whether formal charges should be brought against the defendant and whether the case should go to trial. If so, a true bill or indictment (a formal complaint against the defendant listing the specific criminal charge) is issued. If not, the grand jury dismisses the case by issuing a no true bill (also called a no bill). That means the defendant is not charged or required to stand trial.


This is a formal court hearing to determine whether the defendant is guilty of the crime as charged. Sometimes a defendant will enter a plea of guilty or accept a plea agreement offered by the federal prosecutor before the trial starts. If that happens, no trial is held and you will not be required to testify.


If a trial is held, law enforcement officers, witnesses, and other persons with knowledge of the crime may be required to appear in court and testify. If you are required to testify at the trial, you will be notified by subpoena and contacted by the federal prosecutor and victim/witness coordinator. After the federal prosecutor has presented evidence that shows the defendant committed the crime, the defense attorney may present evidence to show the defendant did not commit the crime.

When the federal prosecutor and defense attorney have presented all their legally admissible evidence, a judge or a jury considers the evidence and then determines whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty. If the defendant is found not guilty, the charges are dismissed and nothing further happens in the case. The federal prosecutor and victim/witness coordinator can tell you the outcome of the trial or plea agreement.

Submitting Victim Impact Information

If the defendant in your case is found guilty or pleads guilty, you have the right to submit a written statement about the crime's emotional, financial, and physical effect on you, your family, or your business for the court's consideration before sentencing. That statement, commonly called a victim impact statement, allows you to tell the court how the crime has hurt you--information only you know.

Additionally, if the court orders the U.S. Probation Department to complete a pre-sentence investigation report on the defendant, a pre-sentence probation officer may contact you to inquire about the impact of the crime and to verify your financial losses.

You may also have a chance to appear in court and speak directly to the judge at the time of sentencing. For more information about submitting a written statement or speaking at the time of sentencing, contact the victim/witness coordinator or federal prosecutor.

Sentencing Hearing

If the defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty, a hearing is held to determine an appropriate punishment. In the federal criminal justice system, the judge bases the defendant's punishment on predetermined guidelines for each violation. Before selecting a punishment, the judge orders the U.S. Probation Department to complete a pre-sentence investigation report. That report details the defendant's personal background and criminal history and the crime's emotional, physical, and financial impact on you.

Punishments may include a jail or prison sentence (followed by a period of supervised release); probation, where the defendant is allowed to remain in a community under supervision; or other options. The judge may also require the criminal to pay fines, assessments, or court costs and to repay you for the financial losses you suffered. (Repaying victims is called restitution.)

Post-Sentence Notification

If a defendant is convicted and receives a prison term, you have the right to be kept informed of his or her projected release date. This service, available from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), also notifies you if the convicted defendant, now called an inmate:

If you want to be kept informed of such developments, submit a written request (once the defendant has been sentenced) to the federal prosecutor in the jurisdiction in which your case was handled. The victim/witness coordinator will provide you a request form and then forward it to the BOP Victim-Witness Program. The inmate does not have access to this personal information.

Be sure to update BOP if your address or telephone number changes. Send changes to the Victim-Witness Program, U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Room 539, 320 First Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20534.

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