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When a person is arrested and charged with a crime, his or her first court appearance will be for a court arraignment. Exactly what takes place during a court arraignment will vary somewhat from one jurisdiction to the other, but there are similarities. In most cases, a court arraignment will include informing the defendant of the charges against him or her, entering a preliminary plea, and discussing legal representation and bail.
Within the United States, a person who has been arrested and charged with a crime has a right to a court arraignment within a reasonable amount of time. In other words, a person cannot be held in jail without being informed of the charges against him or her and without the opportunity to appear before a judge within a reasonable amount of time. In the United States federal court system, a defendant must have his or her initial arraignment within 48 hours. State courts will vary somewhat, but most court systems require an arraignment to take place within 72 hours.
One of the most important things that happens at a court arraignment is that the defendant is informed of the charges against him or her. In most legal systems. the defendant has the right to have the entire indictment or information read to him or her. He or she may waive a formal reading of the charges, however, if he or she chooses to do so. A judge will generally take the time to make sure the defendant understands the charges against him or her, but this is not the time to discuss the evidence the prosecution has against the defendant.
A preliminary plea will also be entered on the defendant's behalf at a court arraignment. In many cases, the judge will automatically enter a preliminary plea of not guilty on behalf of the defendant. Although a defendant certainly has the right to plead guilty at the arraignment, most judges will discourage this unless an attorney is present.
In legal systems where the defendant has an absolute right to legal representation when charged with a crime, the judge will also inform the defendant of that right at the court arraignment. Typically, the judge will ask the defendant whether he or she plans to hire an attorney or whether the court should consider appointing one for him or her. If the defendant claims to be indigent, then the judge may inquire about his or her finances in order to determine whether he or she qualifies for a public defender.
Bail is also set at a court arraignment. If the defendant is charged with a crime for which bail is an option. then the judge will set a bail amount. Once the defendant has legal representation, a motion to reconsider the bail amount may be filed if the initial bail amount is too high for the defendant to pay.
@Terrificli -- a lot of courts have taken steps to shorten the amount of time defendants and their lawyers sit in court for arraignments. For example, it is common for attorneys to phone in pleas on misdemeanor charges, and some courts have even taken to conducting arraignments via web conferences.
Things are getting better.
Sadly, the good old arraignment is often a major waste of time. For those defendants who are not in jail, the procedure typically involves sitting in a court room for the better part of a morning, wandering up before a judge for a couple of minutes, listening to the charges of which the defendant is already aware, pleading not guilty to those charges and then having a hearing date set.
It is very true that courts are busy and dockets are huge. Still, you'd think they could think of a way to speed things up a bit.