conviction | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Courts

A conviction is a formal declaration by a court, following a trial, affirming a defendant’s guilt for a charged crime, impacting their legal record.

In the realm of criminal law, a conviction is a formal declaration by a court of law that a person accused of a crime is guilty. This judgment, reached by a judge or a jury, is the culmination of a criminal trial and signifies that the defendant is legally responsible for the crime they were charged with.

The term can also refer to the final judgment in any criminal proceeding, signaling the end of the court’s deliberation over a particular case.

How a Conviction is Reached

A conviction doesn’t just happen. It is the result of a multi-step legal process that begins with the alleged crime. Following an investigation, if law enforcement officials gather enough evidence, they may decide to charge a suspect with a crime. The prosecutor then files these charges in court, beginning the legal process that could lead to a conviction.

Once charges are filed, the defendant has a right to a trial. In the United States, the accused can choose between a trial by jury or a bench trial, which is decided by a judge. The prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime. This high standard is meant to protect innocent individuals from being wrongly convicted. If the judge or jury decides that the prosecution has met this burden of proof, a conviction is the result.


There are different types based on the seriousness of the crime and the court’s decision. Felony convictions are for serious crimes such as murder, rape, or armed robbery. These often carry heavy penalties, including imprisonment for more than a year. Misdemeanor convictions are for less serious crimes, like petty theft or minor drug possession. These often result in lighter penalties, like fines or short-term imprisonment. There are also ‘summary’ or ‘infraction’ convictions for minor offenses like traffic violations.

Post-Conviction Process

Following a conviction, the court determines the appropriate punishment during the sentencing phase. The sentence can range from fines, community service, probation, to imprisonment, depending on the severity of the crime and other factors like the defendant’s criminal history. Sometimes, the defendant can appeal the result to a higher court, asserting that there were legal errors during the trial that affected the judgment.


A conviction can have lasting effects beyond the legal penalties. Convicted individuals may face challenges finding employment or housing due to their criminal records. They may also lose certain civil rights, like voting or owning firearms, particularly after a felony conviction.

In certain cases, a conviction can be expunged or sealed, which means it is erased or hidden from public view. This process depends on the laws of the jurisdiction and often requires that the individual has completed their sentence and demonstrated good behavior for a certain period.


In conclusion, a conviction is a serious legal judgment that confirms an individual’s guilt in a criminal matter. It results from a carefully structured legal process that upholds the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Understanding what a conviction entails, the process by which it is reached, and the impact it can have on an individual’s life is essential to grasp the workings of the criminal justice system.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/14/2023

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