Decoding Legal Jargon: A Layman’s Guide to Criminal Defense Terms

Decoding Legal Jargon: A Layman’s Guide to Criminal Defense Terms
The criminal justice system can be confusing. With an array of unfamiliar words and legal jargon, the process is overwhelming to those unfamiliar with these new phrases. However, the importance of understanding this complex jargon cannot be overstated, as it enables individuals to better comprehend their rights, the charges against them, and the potential pathways their cases might follow.

This article aims to bridge this gap by offering an easy-to-understand overview of essential legal terms and processes. Whether you’re seeking guidance for yourself or aiming to support someone through their legal journey, this article serves as your trusted companion.

Article Summary:

  1. Key Phrases in the Criminal Justice Process
  2. Understanding Charges: Felonies vs. Misdemeanors
  3. Legal Representation Overview
  4. Common Criminal Defense Strategies
  5. Negotiating Plea Bargains: What You Need to Know
  6. Your Rights During the Criminal Defense Process
  7. Fenton Law: Your Trusted Criminal Defense Attorney

1. Key Phases in the Criminal Justice Process

Here are the most common phrases used in the criminal justice system and what they mean:

  • Investigation: The initial stage where law enforcement officers collect evidence to determine whether a crime has occurred. If enough evidence is found, it leads to an arrest.
  • Arrest: A person is taken into custody by police. An arrest can occur at the scene of the crime or after an investigation if there is probable cause.
  • Charging: After an arrest, the prosecutor reviews the evidence and decides whether to file formal charges or drop the case.
  • Initial Hearing / Arraignment: The defendant appears before a judge for the first time. The charges are read, and the defendant may enter a plea. Bail may also be discussed.
  • Discovery: Both the defense and prosecution exchange information about the evidence and witnesses they plan to present at trial.
  • Plea Bargaining: The defendant and the prosecutor negotiate an agreement. The defendant agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence.
  • Trial: If no plea bargain is reached, the case proceeds to trial. A jury or judge examines the evidence to decide whether the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Sentencing: If the defendant is convicted, the judge issues a sentence based on guidelines. This could include imprisonment, fines, probation, or community service.
  • Appeal: The defendant has the right to appeal the conviction or sentence if they believe a legal error has affected the trial’s outcome.

2. Understanding Charges: Felonies vs. Misdemeanors

One of the most important aspects of criminal defense is understanding the charges against you. In general, criminal offenses can be divided into two categories: felonies and misdemeanors.


Felonies are more serious crimes that carry severe penalties, including imprisonment for one year or more, significant fines, and potential loss of civil rights. Examples include murder, rape, and kidnapping.


Misdemeanors are less severe offenses that carry lighter penalties, such as fines or imprisonment for less than one year. Examples include petty theft, disorderly conduct and first-time DUI/OWIs.

Knowing the difference between felonies and misdemeanors is crucial, as it can impact the severity of the consequences you may face if convicted. It’s also essential to note that some crimes can be classified as either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances.

3. Legal Representation Overview 

Navigating the criminal justice process alone can be overwhelming and daunting. That’s where legal representation comes in. Here are some essential terms related to obtaining legal counsel:

  • Public Defender: An attorney provided by the government for those who cannot afford private representation.
  • Private Attorney: A lawyer hired by the defendant to represent them in court.
  • Retainer Fee: The upfront payment a private attorney requires before taking on a case. It is used to cover their services and expenses.
  • Contingency Fee: Commonly used in civil cases, this refers to an agreement where the attorney receives a percentage of any monetary damages awarded to the client.
  • Pro Bono: Refers to legal services provided for free, usually for those who cannot afford representation.

It’s essential to understand these terms when seeking a criminal defense attorney as they can impact your financial situation and the type of lawyer you work with.

4. Common Criminal Defense Strategies

Every criminal case is unique and requires a tailored defense strategy. Here are some common approaches used by criminal defense attorneys:

  • Alibi: This strategy aims to prove that the defendant was not present at the scene of the crime when it occurred.
  • Self-Defense: In this approach, the defendant argues that they acted in self-defense or defense of others.
  • Insanity Defense: This strategy argues that the defendant was not mentally competent at the time the crime was committed.
  • Entrapment: This defense asserts that the defendant only committed the crime because they were induced by law enforcement to do so.

These are just a few examples of defense strategies. Each case requires careful consideration to determine the best approach for a successful defense.

5. Negotiating Plea Bargains: What You Need to Know

Plea bargains are common in criminal cases, and understanding how they work is crucial.

  • Pros: By accepting a plea bargain, the defendant may receive a lighter sentence or have some charges dropped.
  • Cons: The defendant must plead guilty, and they may face consequences such as a criminal record or loss of certain rights.
  • Factors: The strength of the evidence, previous criminal history, and the willingness of the victim to cooperate can all impact plea bargain negotiations.

It’s essential to discuss any potential plea bargains thoroughly with your defense attorney before making a decision. You can read more about this in our guide “The Role of a DUI/OWI Lawyer in Plea Bargaining.”

6. Your Rights During the Criminal Defense Process

Common Criminal Defense Terms Explained
Lastly, it’s crucial to understand your rights throughout the criminal defense process. These include:

  • Presumption of Innocence: The defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
  • Right to Remain Silent: Defendants are entitled to withhold any statements or responses that could be self-incriminating during interrogations or court proceedings.
  • Right to an Attorney: The defendant has the right to an attorney, and if they cannot afford one, one will be provided for them.
  • Right to a Fair Trial: The defendant has the right to a fair and impartial trial with a jury of their peers.

7. Fenton Law: Your Trusted Criminal Defense Attorney

Navigating the criminal justice system can be challenging, but having a knowledgeable and experienced attorney by your side can make all the difference. At Fenton Law, a criminal defense and appeals law firm in Milwaukee, we are dedicated to providing our clients with strong and effective legal representation and making sure our clients understand our process every step of the way.

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, don’t hesitate to contact us for a free consultation. Our team of skilled Milwaukee criminal defense attorneys will work tirelessly to defend your rights and achieve the best possible outcome for your case.

By Attorney Jay Fenton, Owner of Fenton Law Office

Jay Fenton is a top-rated criminal defense attorney in Milwaukee who goes above and beyond for his clients. He has successfully secured favorable outcomes in countless cases, from negotiating plea agreements to filing pre-trial motions and managing complex appeals. Attorney Fenton also has had tremendous success achieving not-guilty verdicts at trial. His dedication and aggressiveness make him one of the best attorneys around.