An arraignment is the first time a defendant appears in court. At an arraignment, the judge tells the defendant what the charges are against him and his constitutional rights, and informs him that if he cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the court will appoint a lawyer free of charge.
Being arrested and charged with a crime is simply the first step in what is often a very lengthy process. The next step (and the first time you step foot inside a courtroom) is the arraignment. Normally, the arraignment takes place the same day or the day after arrest and charge. It is a brief, initial hearing on the case before a magistrate judge.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
The arraignment is the first time a defendant appears in court on a criminal charge.
What Is the Process of Arraignment?
At an arraignment, the judge tells the defendant what the charges against him are, what his constitutional rights are, and informs him that, if he cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the court will appoint a lawyer free of charge. The defendant then responds to the charges by entering a plea. If another court date is set, it is normally for a pre-trial conference. An arraignment typically lasts about three hours, but if the court is very busy, the accused may have to stay all day.
Can You Go to Jail After an Arraignment?
If the defendant is in custody at the time of arraignment, after entering a plea, the judge will release the defendant on the promise that she will return to court on a future date. Alternatively, the judge may instead set bail (money or property put up by the defendant as a promise to return for future court dates) and send the defendant back to jail until bail is posted. In some cases, the judge may refuse to set bail at all and send the defendant back to jail.
The judge bases the bail decision on several factors, including the defendant's prior criminal record, whether she has family nearby, how long she has resided in the area and whether she has made threats against any witnesses in the case.
Can You Plead Guilty at an Arraignment?
You can plead guilty at an arraignment, which means you admit you committed the crime. The judge finds the defendant guilty and enters a conviction in the court record. You can also plead not guilty, i.e., you do not admit you committed the crime. A plea of not guilty is sometimes a strategic move made during plea bargaining or an attempt to take the case to trial and force the prosecution to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Another plea option is no contest (nolo contendere), which means you do not disagree with the charge. Effectively, this also means you admit you committed the crime, but the conviction can't be used against you in a civil lawsuit.