A Brief Overview of the Criminal Justice System in Rhode Island

By: Rebecca Carey, Roger William's Law Student

The criminal justice system is complicated and intricate. Most often people find themselves in trouble, but do not understand the process, what their rights are, or what to expect. Below is a quick overview of some of the most common areas of confusion:

Right to an attorney:

Most people know that every American is constitutionally guaranteed the right to an attorney; this right involves access to a privately paid attorney for any situation, at any time, either in or out of court. For those who cannot afford their own legal representation there is the Public Defender. A Public Defender is a lawyer who works for the government who will represent anyone charged with a crime (which will result in a criminal proceeding, or that could result in a jail sentence) who cannot afford his own private defense attorney. The right to counsel extends to custodial questioning by the police or other preliminary actions prior to trial, like a police lineup for example.

What is a crime?

A crime is an offense or violation of the law for which an individual may be punished. Crimes are categorized in different ways. One way is a violation, which can be punished by a fine of not more than $500 and will not result in jail time. A person can be sentenced to jail time for a violation if he was ordered to pay a fine and willfully failed to do so. An example of a violation includes a traffic offense like a parking ticket.

Another crime is a misdemeanor, which is more serious than a violation and includes both petty and regular misdemeanors. A petty misdemeanor is any offense punishable by a fine of not more than $500 and/or imprisonment for six months or less. A regular misdemeanor is any offense punishable by imprisonment for more than six months but not more than one year, or a fine that exceeds $500 but not more than $1,000. Punishment for a misdemeanor conviction could include jail, probation, a fine (which often can be paid in regular and timely installments), or any combination. An example of a misdemeanor is driving while intoxicated.

The most serious crime is a felony. A felony is an offense punishable by a fine that exceeds $1,000 or imprisonment for more than one year. Punishments for a felony conviction are the same as misdemeanor (jail, probation, fine) but are more severe. Examples of felonies include everything from stealing property worth more than $500 to rape and murder.


Bail determines whether a person waits for his trial in jail or whether he may be released until his trial date; it is essentially an assurance that the individual will appear for his scheduled court date. Sometimes a person’s promise to appear is enough, this is called being released on personal recognizance. Personal recognizance will still involve a set amount of money, and then if the individual fails to appear or breaks some other condition of his release, he will have to pay that amount. In determining what amount of money to set as bail, the judge will consider anything in the individual’s background that could indicate whether or not he is likely to voluntarily appear back in court. This could include criminal background, family history, employment, or education.

Bail is either set at the police station or at the ACI, following an arrest after a special arraignment with a bail commissioner.


Different offenses are heard in different courts. It is important to know which court you are to appear in because failure to appear could result in arrest. Which court will hear a case is determined by the location and type of offense.

Traffic violations are heard in traffic courts, which are located throughout the State. Which traffic court you are to appear in depends upon the location of the traffic offense. District Court is where other violations are heard. There are eight different District Court divisions located in Rhode Island, but some are combined in one Providence building. Which District Court will hear your case depends upon where the alleged crime was committed. For example, Providence, Woonsocket, and Bristol County are in the Sixth Division and are heard in Providence, Washington County is the Fourth Division and is located in Wakefield, Kent County is the Third Division and is located in West Warwick, and Newport County is the Second Division and is located in Newport.

Felonies are often initially heard in District Court, but eventually most felonies end up in Superior Court, located in each of the counties of Rhode Island, except Bristol County, which is heard in Providence County.

Right to appeal:

After a conviction of a misdemeanor or a felony, a defendant (the person who was convicted) is entitled to appeal his case to the highest court in Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Supreme Court. All appeals must be filed within 20 days after sentencing at Superior Court. The Public Defender represents a defendant who cannot afford his own attorney on appeal. On appeal, the judge does not determine facts, only questions of law.

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