The Criminal Justice Process

I hope that no victim ever feels re-victimized by the criminal justice system. That no victim feels left out of any step of the process in our efforts to seek justice for them and their families. I hope that a victim can wake up without fear and know that they have support and strength in their victim advocate to help them in their healing.
– Victim Witness Coordinator, 14th Judicial District
The following is a general timeline for how a case moves through the criminal justice process in Tennessee. Please understand that each case is different and often the process will fluctuate based on factors such as how the crime was reported, how or when the defendant is arrested, the situation of the defendant and victim, etc. If you have any questions about the status of your case, we encourage you to contact your local District Attorney’s Office.


Arrest Warrant

A written order from a judge that a person be arrested. If you are a victim or a witness, the warrant is based on a written statement about the crime in which you were involved.


Bail/Bond Hearing

Once the defendant has been arrested, the Court may hold a bail hearing, sometimes called a “bond hearing,” to determine whether the defendant should be held in the local jail until the trial is complete or can be released on bail. Bail is an amount paid or pledged by the defendant to make sure he or she will appear in court. Not every case will have a bail/bond hearing.


Preliminary Hearing

A probable cause hearing, usually in General Sessions court, to determine if there is reason to believe that a crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it. Attendance by the victim is not required, but victims do have a constitutional right to be present at all hearings where a defendant is present.**


Court Decision

If the court determines that there is reason to believe a misdemeanor crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it, the case goes straight to a plea hearing.
Jump to Plea Agreement
If the court determines that there is reason to believe a felony crime has been committed and that the defendant committed it, the case is “bound over” to grand jury.
Jump to Grand Jury


Grand Jury

An independent group of private citizens who listen to information about the crime in order to decide whether the case should go to trial. This is different from a jury trial, and the defendant is not present. The victim’s appearance is required only if subpoenaed or requested.



If the grand jurors decide that a case should go to trial, they “return” an indictment or presentment charging the defendant with the crime(s) committed.



The first scheduled appearance by the defendant in Criminal or Circuit Court. The indictment returned by the grand jury is read and the defendant is given a copy. Arrangements are made for an attorney for the defendant.


Report Date/Status Hearing

The defense and State must be given sufficient time to prepare their case before it can move forward to a plea agreement or trial. Consequently, the court will often set report dates, sometimes called status hearings, where each party is required to report if they are ready to proceed or if they need more time to prepare. Cases can have multiple report dates/status hearings.


Plea Agreement

This is a negotiated settlement that allows defendants to accept responsibility for their actions and for the court to dispose of their case without trial. Many defendants plead guilty. Once a defendant decides to plead guilty, it is up to the District Attorney’s Office and the defendant’s attorney to work out an agreement to present to the judge. The defendant may agree to plead guilty to the crime(s) charged or to a lesser offense, and there may be an agreement that the District Attorney’s Office will recommend a sentence to the judge. The judge may accept or reject the plea. Although you will not have the final say as to what sentence is given, the District Attorney’s Office values and will consider your input. If no plea agreement is reached, the case goes to trial. If a plea agreement is reached, the case moves straight to sentencing.

Plea agreement not reached



The court proceeding in which the District Attorney, or an Assistant District Attorney, presents the case for the State, attempting to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime(s) as charged. The defendant may present proof to dispute the State’s claim. Usually, the defendant chooses whether a judge or a 12-person petit jury will decide the case. You should be present at the trial and may be required to attend if you were a witness to the crime. 

Plea agreement reached



After a defendant’s guilty plea is accepted or he/she is found guilty after a trial, the judge decides what happens. The defendant may be sent to prison or jail, or the sentence may be “suspended,” and the defendant put on probation. Probation means the defendant is left free as long as he/she does what the judge has told him/her to do. He/she may also be placed in other programs, such as “Community Corrections.” **

Victim’s Impact Statement – You will be given the opportunity to provide a written impact statement to be submitted by a probation office as part of the pre-sentence report to be reviewed by the court prior to sentencing. The District Attorney's Office will work with you if you wish to make an oral statement at the sentencing hearing. 


Post trial

Convicted defendants have a right to appeal their convictions and sentences to higher courts. These courts examine the record made of the trial proceedings to determine if reversible error has occurred. If a higher court finds that serious errors occurred in the trial proceedings, it may remand the case for a new trial or even dismiss the charges. Although most appeals are unsuccessful, the process is very lengthy. Appeals are handled by the State Attorney General’s Office. If you’d like to receive notification in the event that the defendant in your case files for appeal, visit our Where to go for …[LINK] resources page for information on how to register.
“Parole” is the release of a person from prison before the end of his/her sentence, under certain conditions or restrictions which must be met or the person will be returned to prison. You may request to be notified by the Board of Parole of hearing dates and Board decisions prior to an individual’s release.

**For information on how and when to attend court for your case, please contact your local victim/witness coordinators.