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September 8, 2022

Criminal Process in Pennsylvania

What happens if you are charged with a violent crime in Pennsylvania? Find out how criminal process goes and what are possible penalties for violent crimes.

It is important that you understand what happens when a criminal complaint is filed against you. The Pennsylvania criminal justice process grants you certain rights, and there is an optimal way of handling each stage of the criminal justice process. Skillfully exploiting Pennsylvania criminal procedure, from arrest to sentencing (with the aid of an experienced criminal defense attorney, of course)., can result in the best possible outcome for you.


In most cases, an arrest is the first step in the Pennsylvania criminal process.

Pennsylvania’s criminal case procedure usually begins at that moment (absent a grand jury proceeding). So what happens when you get arrested?

Whether you are arrested in Pennsylvania or elsewhere in the United States, the police must “read you your rights” to be able to use any of your statements against you. You’ve probably heard it before: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you….” The police will then detain you and “book” you - take you to the police station, take mug shots, fingerprint you, and take care of other routine matters.

Preliminary Arraignment

violent crime law

At the preliminary arraignment, you must appear before the judge. The judge will review your record, including any past criminal history, and set bail (the amount of money you must pay to stay out of jail before trial). The judge might deny you bail, or set the amount extremely high, if:

  • The crime you are charged with is particularly serious, the evidence against you is particularly strong, and the judge believes you are guilty and fears you may re-offend before trial; or
  • The odds seem high that you will leave the jurisdiction (flee the state or even the country) before trial.

You will forfeit your bail money if you don’t show up for your next court date.

Preliminary Hearing

What happens after formal arraignment in PA? The next step is your preliminary hearing. A preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania is an integral part of the criminal process. At the preliminary hearing, the prosecution must present evidence that establishes a greater than 50% chance that you are guilty. If not, the judge will dismiss your charges, and you will walk free.

If the prosecution does establish more than a 50% chance that you are guilty, the process continues to a formal arraignment in another court, where you must plead guilty or not guilty.  


The trial is a feature of the criminal case procedure that only occurs if you plead not guilty. If you plead guilty as you might in a plea bargain, there will be no trial, and the court will sentence you.  

At the trial, the prosecution has the burden of proving that you are guilty of the crime charged “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It is the defense’s job to introduce reasonable doubt that the prosecution’s evidence cannot overcome. That is all the defense has to do to win.


Under typical Pennsylvania criminal processing, you wait several weeks after a guilty plea or a conviction before the judge sentences you (sometimes sentencing happens immediately, however).

The County Probation Officer will write a report about your case that the judge can consider at sentencing. Although you have the right to the assistance of an attorney to advocate for a lighter sentence, ultimately, the judge makes the final decision within certain limitations.


what happens when a criminal complaint is filed against you

Pennsylvania imposes many types of criminal penalties, depending on the nature and severity of the offense.

  • The death penalty: The most serious possible penalty is the death penalty for violent criminals— in particular murderers. Despite this link between the death penalty and violent crimes, the death penalty is rarely imposed, and even then, only for murder (Pennsylvania) and treason (in a federal prosecution).
  • Jail or prison: Jail is for people awaiting trial or who have committed misdemeanors, while prison is for convicted felons. The maximum prison sentence, usually reserved for violent felons, is “life without parole.” In “life without parole,” you remain incarcerated until death with no chance of early release.
  • Fines: You could face a fine of $50,000 or even more for a single serious criminal offense. You pay this fine to the government as a sort of special tax.
  • Restitution: Restitution is money you pay to the victims to compensate them for the damage done by the crime.
  • Probation: Probation allows you to avoid jail or prison, either after a period of incarceration or as a substitute for incarceration. You will become subject to terms of probation, such as paying fines and restitution, refraining from breaking the law, and other possible restrictions on your lifestyle. You will also have to meet with your probation officer periodically.


The criminal process is not easy to understand. It generates questions, and we are going to answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

Can You Get a Bond at a Preliminary Hearing?

Can you get a bond at a preliminary hearing? Yes, you can usually get a bond (bail) at a preliminary hearing. A bond is money you pay to be released from jail until your trial. There are four main bond-related options:
  • Release on your recognizance, which means your bond is zero, but you might have to obey certain conditions of release to remain free.
  • An unsecured bond. An unsecured bond requires no upfront payment, but you might have to pay a bond later to stay out of jail if you violate the conditions of your release.
  • Bond: A bond is a certain amount of money you must pay to stay out of jail, often amounting to thousands of dollars.
  • Hire a bail bond agent to pay your bond for you. You will end up owing the bondsman 10% to 15% of the total, regardless of the outcome of your charge.
You will lose your bond money if you fail to appear in court.

Can the Police Charge You without Arresting You?

Can the police charge you without arresting you? Yes, the police can charge you without arresting you, although this is not the usual practice. You might receive a criminal citation or a notice to appear in court by mail, for example. You might be pulled over for running a stop sign and then notified by the police officer that you have a pending charge against you that you didn’t even know about. Contact a professional criminal lawyer for more information on this topic.

Is First Criminal Offense a Mitigating Factor?

Yes, if this is your first criminal offense, Pennsylvania will probably treat it as a mitigating factor. First offense criminal charges typically (but not always) lead to more lenient penalties. Pennsylvania has established programs, such as Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposal (ARD), designed to keep first-time offenders out of jail with a clean criminal record.


The Pennsylvania criminal process is difficult to navigate on your own. You’re going to need some help. Alan J. Tauber is an experienced criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia with over 25 years of experience protecting defendants charged with both non-violent and violent crimes. Contact us online or call 215-575-0702 for a case consultation.

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