Indictment Vs Charge – What Is The Difference?

Understanding legal terms like indictment and charge can be confusing, yet they are crucial within criminal law. These two words may sound similar, but they significantly differ in terms of who issues them and their implications on the accused.

This blog demystifies these terms for you, outlining their definitions, the processes involved, and the differences between the two concepts.

Let’s dive right in for a clear understanding of indictment vs charge.!

Understanding Indictment vs Charge

While you may have heard both terms used interchangeably and sometimes in the same sentence or idea; when it comes to law enforcement, it’s crucial to understand the difference in charge vs indictment.

indictment vs charge


Definition of Indictment

An indictment is a formal accusation. This legal action stems from a grand jury concluding there’s probable cause to prosecute a suspected criminal. In other words, the grand jury has sifted through evidence and found enough proof. They can officially accuse someone of an alleged crime.

Moreover, indictments typically focus on more serious criminal offenses and are common in the federal court system, detailing the specific charges and legal statutes allegedly violated by the accused.

The indictment holds weight as it lays bare basic information about the supposed crime committed, thus initiating prosecution for serious offenses. This process makes indictments more consequential than regular criminal complaints due to their considerable formality and gravity in the eyes of the law.

Definition of a Criminal Charge

A criminal charge marks the formal start of legal procedures against a suspected individual. Immediately or soon after an arrest, law enforcement makes this allegation stating that the person in question committed a particular crime.

A charge is a statement accusing someone of committing an illegal act – serious offense or otherwise.

Charges aren’t just procedure, they play a critical role in shaping future court proceedings and trials. They dictate what type of evidence will be admissible during trial and establish the potential penalties if convicted.

The seriousness and nature of the charges also influence the bail amount, conditions for release, and defense strategies that the accused may employ to contest the allegations.

Criminal charges can range from minor misdemeanors to severe felonies. It all depends on the gravity of the alleged crime.

Process of Indictment and Charging

While the process may vary in length, both indicting and charging have to go through similar procedures.

Grand Jury Proceedings

During grand jury proceedings, the role of an impartial jury is critical in examining evidence presented for potential felony charges. This jury, chosen from the general public, is part of the court system and operates independently from the prosecutor and defendant.

In these proceedings, they call witnesses and ask them to provide their testimony. Testimonies strengthen or challenge presented evidence. If they bring up enough credible evidence to suggest that a crime happened, the grand jury will issue an indictment or formal accusation against the individual under criminal investigation.

This process are vital in maintaining justice by ensuring only well-founded accusations proceed within the legal framework.

It underscores the essence of thorough scrutiny and due process, ensuring that accusations are rooted in factual and legal grounds, thereby preventing arbitrary prosecutions.

Preliminary Hearings

A magistrate judge presides over the proceedings during a preliminary hearing, which takes place after the defendant pleads not guilty. The purpose of the hearing is to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with criminal charges and whether the defendant should face trial.

The prosecutor must present convincing evidence demonstrating there could be probable cause for the charges. If the defendant has been charged with an offense other than a petty offense, it is mandatory to conduct a preliminary hearing.

The defense also has an opportunity to contest the evidence presented, offering counterarguments or presenting additional evidence to challenge the basis of the charges, a crucial phase that can determine the trajectory of the entire case.

This step in the legal process ensures fairness and protects individuals from unwarranted prosecution.

Differences Between Indictment and Charge

Indictment and charge are often used in the criminal justice system, but they involve different stages and parties of the process.

Use of Grand Jury 

A grand jury plays a unique role in the legal system when it comes to determining whether criminal charges should be brought against someone. Instead of relying solely on the decision of a prosecutor, a grand jury is an independent group of citizens that investigates the crime and decides if there is enough evidence to proceed with charges. This only applies to indictments.

They have the power to call witnesses and gather information during their proceedings, which adds an extra layer of scrutiny to the case. 

Unlike regular criminal charges, where a prosecutor makes the decision, using a grand jury puts the responsibility in the hands of impartial citizens who carefully review all available evidence before deciding whether or not to issue an indictment.

Differences in Judicial Procedures

When a defendant is indicted, it means that a grand jury has reviewed the evidence presented by the prosecutor and determined that there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.

This process involves a group of citizens who listen to the prosecutor’s case against the accused and decide whether there is probable cause.

An indictment often necessitates a more experienced defense attorney well-versed in complex litigation and equipped to navigate the intricacies of federal courts or serious felony cases.

On the other hand, when someone is charged with a crime, it means that the prosecutor has filed formal charges against them based on their assessment of the evidence. These charges can be brought without involving a grand jury.

Instead, they typically go through preliminary hearings where a judge decides if there is enough evidence for the case to move forward.

These differences in judicial procedures have significant implications for both sides. Being indicted carries more weight because it signifies that an impartial group of citizens believes there is enough trial evidence.

In contrast, being charged may indicate less strength in terms of evidentiary support.

Consequences for the Accused

If an accused person is charged with a crime, they may face penalties such as fines or probation if they are convicted. However, if the accused is indicted, the consequences can be more severe.

Being indicted means that a grand jury has formally charged the individual with a crime after reviewing evidence presented by prosecutors. This indicates that the case is being taken more seriously and can result in harsher punishments if the accused is found guilty.

The specific penalties will depend on the nature of the offense and applicable laws. So it’s important to understand whether you are facing charges or have been indicted to fully comprehend potential legal ramifications.


In conclusion, understanding the difference between an indictment and a charge is crucial in navigating the criminal justice system. While both involve formal accusations of a crime, indictments are brought by grand juries after considering evidence, while charges are filed by prosecuting attorneys.

This distinction impacts the legal process, potential consequences, and the defendant’s rights throughout their case. So next time you hear these terms, remember that an indictment involves a grand jury while charges come from a prosecuting attorney.

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