Below you will find definitions of various criminal justice, prison, court and sentencing related terms.
Amicus brief: The name for a brief filed with the court by someone who is not a party to the case. A phrase that literally means “friend of the court” -- someone who is not a party to the litigation, but who believes that the court's decision may affect its interest. Amicus Curiae or amicus briefs, are filed in many Supreme Court matters, both at the Petition for Writ of Certiorari (see below) stage, and when the Court is deciding a case on its merits. Some studies have shown a positive correlation between number of amicus briefs filed in support of granting certiorari, and the Court's decision to grant certiorari. Some friend of the court briefs provide valuable information about legal arguments, or how a case might affect people other than the parties to the case. Some organizations file friend of the court briefs in an attempt to "lobby" the Supreme Court, obtain media attention, or impress members.
Appeal: An appeal is the act or fact of challenging a judicially cognizable and binding judgement to a higher judicial authority. In common law jurisdictions, most commonly, this means formally filing a notice of appeal with a lower court, indicating one's intention to take the matter to the next higher court with jurisdiction over the matter, and then actually filing the appeal with the appropriate appellate court.
Certiorari: Certiorari is a Latin word meaning "to be informed of, or to be made certain in regard to". It is also the name given to certain appellate proceedings for re-examination of actions of a trial court, or inferior appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court still uses the term certiorari in the context of appeals.
Mandatory minimums: These sentencing laws are enacted by state legislators or Congress. Most of these laws were passed in the 70’s and 80’s. They force judges to give fixed prison terms to those convicted of specific crimes. On the federal level, FAMM is fighting most of the laws enacted in the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. These laws prevent judges from considering other relevant factors, such as the defendant’s role in the offense or likelihood of committing a future offense. These laws were toughened in 1988 to apply to drug conspiracies and certain gun offenses.
Sentencing guidelines: This system started in 1987. Congress established the sentencing commission and directed it to write guidelines to combat unjustified sentencing disparity from judge to judge across the country. The guidelines require the sentencing judge to consider various facts about the crime and the defendant. Judges may generally impose a sentence within the range, the have discretion to choose a sentence anywhere within the range, and in unusual cases, they may choose a sentence above or below the range if they explain their reasons for doing so. Both mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines limit judicial discretion, but the guidelines are preferable.
Concurrent sentences: Sentences for more than one crime which are to be served at one time. When a criminal defendant is convicted of two or more crimes, a judge sentences him/her to a certain period of time for each crime. Then out of compassion, leniency, plea bargaining or the fact that the several crimes are interrelated, the judge will rule that the sentences may all be served at the same time, with the longest period taking precedence (controlling).
Consecutive sentences: The term for when sentence for several crimes are served one after another.
Indeterminate sentencing: The prison term imposed after conviction of a crime, which does not state a specific period of time or release date, but range of time, such as “five-to-ten years.” It is one side of a continuing debate as to whether it is better to make sentences absolute (subject to reduction for good behavior) without reference to potential rehabilitation, modification or review.
Parole: The release of a convicted criminal defendant after he/she has completed part of his/her prison sentence, based on the concept that during the period of parole, the released criminal can prove he/she is rehabilitated and can “make good” in society. A parole generally has a specific period and terms such as reporting to a parole officer, not associating with other formerly incarcerated individuals, and staying out of trouble. Violation of the terms may result in revocation of parole and return to prison to complete his/her sentence.
Parole was abolished in the federal system in 1986. Federal inmates now serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences if they behave while in prison. Parole is becoming a thing of the past as many states adopt the same no parole policy. Many states require prisoners convicted of drug offenses to serve 100 percent of their minimum sentences.
Probation: A chance to remain free (or serve only a short time) given by a judge to a person convicted of a crime instead of being sent to jail or prison, provided the person can stay out of trouble. Probation is only given under specific court-ordered terms, such as performing public service work, staying away from liquor, paying a fine, maintaining good behavior, getting mental therapy and reporting regularly to a probation officer. Violation of probation terms will usually result in the person being sent to jail for the normal term. Repeat criminals are normally not eligible for probation. Probation is not the same as “parole,” which is freedom under certain restrictions to the incarcerated individuals at the end of their imprisonment.