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Hearings and Arraignments

Justice scales and a gavel.There are several types of court hearings and arraignments that take place when a defendant enters the justice system. These hearings take place before a trial. This resource will briefly summarize the types of court hearings and arraignments in Pennsylvania, in the order they occur during the process. Court hearings occur at the Pre-Trial Services & Prosecution and Preliminary Procedures & Adjudication phases in the Justice Map.

Bail or Detention Hearing (Pre-Trial Services & Prosecution Phase)

  • If a defendant who is suspected of committing a crime is arrested, this is the first court appearance before the Magisterial District Judge (MDJ).
  • The MDJ sets the bail for the defendant, which is the amount of money that must be paid in order for the defendant to leave initial detention.
  • The amount of bail depends on several things like the severity of the crime, the strength of the case against the defendant, a defendant’s previous criminal record, and whether there is concern that the defendant may flee from police.

Preliminary Hearing (Pre-Trial Services & Prosecution Phase)

  • Occurs between three and ten days of a defendant’s arrest, unless it is postpone.
  • The hearing takes place in front of an MDJ.
  • The defendant should have a public defender or defense counsel during this hearing.
  • Following the preliminary hearing, the judge determines from the evidence whether there is a prima facie case that: (a) an offense has been committed; and (b) the defendant has committed it.
  • If the case is prima facie, the judge will order that the case be “Held for Court” for the defendant to stand trial.
  • Following a Preliminary Hearing or the decision to waive (skip) the preliminary hearing, the MDJ will issue a subpoena to the defendant to appear for Formal Arraignment before the Court of Common Pleas.

Points of Intervention (Pre-Trial Services & Prosecution Phase)

  • Engage with the public defender or private defense counsel at https://ujsportal.pacourts.us/CaseSearch , share your contact information, and request to be added to defendant’s visitor list.
  • Review updates to case, including information about defense counsel at https://ujsportal.pacourts.us/CaseSearch OR through the app: PA eDocket *De-identify: name, MJ#, and MDJ# for consults Engage the defense counsel in:
    a. identifying necessary medication the individual may need
    b. offering helpful information for the interview with the Behavioral Unit
    c. explain social stories as a strategy to assist in preparing for justice scenarios
    d. inquire to opportunities for individual to meet judge ahead of time
    e. and if they can request needed accommodations in court room (dim lights, close curtain, dress
    comfortable, etc.)
    f. request parent or other adult be listed on the subpoena so they can attend hearing with
    g. inform of services being put into place and discuss what progress is able to be made to improve
    outcome and
    h. if an individual is transferring from a county to state prison, ensure there is proper
    documentation to confirm disability
    and needs prior to starting the intake process.

Change of Plea Hearing (Preliminary Procedures & Adjudication Phase)

  • A change of plea hearing is a conversation (“colloquy”) between the judge and defendant that occurs
    during the change of plea hearing at the request of the defendant.
  • A defendant has the option to make the following types of plea:
    • Plea Bargain: Agreement between the government and the defendant where the defendant agrees to plead guilty to the charge(s) in exchange for the government’s withdrawal of other charges and/or a more lenient sentence.
    • Open Plea: Defendant pleading without any promise from the prosecution as to what sentence it will recommend.
    • No Contest: Defendant admits that the prosecution has evidence to support a conviction but doesn’t plead “Guilty.” Nonetheless, the no contest plea, if accepted by the court, results in a conviction.
  • The judge must determine whether the defendant’s change of plea is made knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily.
  • The judge can accept the changed plea or reject it.
  • If the change of plea is rejected by the judge, the case will proceed to trial.

Points of Intervention (Preliminary Procedures & Adjudication Phase)

  • Offer to assist defense counsel in pre-sentence investigation stage.
  • Create a detailed Transition Plan and provide to the defense counsel for pre-sentence investigation.

For more information about competency evaluations and other justice system procedures, visit the ASERT Navigating the Justice System page.

Additional Sources:

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This information was developed by the Autism Services, Education, Resources, and Training Collaborative (ASERT). For more information, please contact ASERT at 877-231-4244 or info@PAautism.org. ASERT is funded by the Bureau of Supports for Autism and Special Populations, PA Department of Human Services.