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Crime Victims Guide into the Criminal Justice Process
Criminal offenses are heard, or considered in Superior Court, and are more serious than non-criminal charges heard in municipal courts where the offense occurred. Defendants found guilty, or “convicted” of crimes face more serious consequences, with punishments spanning probation supervision and fines to the loss of liberty through confinement.
Complaints heard in municipal courts are “disorderly persons” offenses or “petty disorderly persons” violations, which carry less restrictive punishments upon conviction.
Once a complaint is issued, defendants are either arrested or issued a summons or notice to appear in municipal or Superior Court on a first appearance. If they fail to appear, a warrant may be issued for the accuser’s arrest by a judge if there is proof of service, or evidence that the accused received the summons or notice and failed to appear. At the first court appearance, defendants are advised of their rights. Their bail is reviewed.
Bail is required to be set within twelve hours of the issuance of a complaint. All defendants have a right to bail under our state constitution. If bail is posted, defendants are released until the charges listed in the complaint are resolved. Defendants can be required to post funds or property to assure that they will appear in court in the future. They may be required to deposit funds or property in exchange for a promise to appear. If defendants have significant ties to the community, or no criminal history, they may be considered for a Release on Own Recognizance or R.O.R., which is an affidavit certifying that they are aware of the charges levied against them, and will appear in court to face them.
Right to Counsel
At their first appearance defendants are advised of their right to counsel. This means that they are entitled to have an attorney represent them and answer the charges. If they indicate that they are unable to afford an attorney, Criminal Division staff are assigned to conduct indigence investigations. These investigations consider defendants’ assets and liabilities, and recommend that cases be assigned to a public defender if a defendant is unable to afford a private attorney. Private attorneys are usually either self-employed or work for private law firms who charge an hourly rate for services.
Trial Case Dispositions
Downgrades & Dismissals
Following the filing of a complaint and the first court appearance, the prosecutor’s office in each county determines whether to pursue a criminal complaint. Prosecutors determine if cases have merit and sufficient evidence to pursue a conviction. In most counties, the prosecutor’s Case Screening Unit reviews police reports and interviews victims and witnesses to determine if the original charges will be prosecuted. If there is insufficient evidence, the charges are downgraded to disorderly persons offenses and “remanded” or sent to the municipal courts for a hearing or dismissed. In some counties, prosecutors pre-screen potential Superior Court filings before a complaint is signed.
In many cases, the prosecutor and a defendant’s lawyer will negotiate a plea bargain. In a plea agreement, the prosecutor may offer the accused an arrangement where s/he will recommend a reduced term of incarceration or probation in exchange for a guilty plea. In some instances, the charges are reduced or dismissed as part of the plea bargain. Maximum sentence terms may also be part of negotiated agreements. The criminal division manages and coordinates court dates with the prosecutor and the defense attorney regarding the plea agreement and establishes a court date for the plea to be entered.
The Criminal Practice Division of the Administrative Office of the Courts tracks all criminal cases in all counties from the time a complaint is issued to its disposition. If some courts have persistent backlogs, an analysis of the system can be made through the division’s statewide criminal case computer network known as Promis Gavel. Methods for reducing backlogs can be formulated by the Conference of Presiding Judges and Criminal Division managers, or local speedy trial coordinating committees led by criminal presiding judges.
Defendants pleading guilty as a result of the plea agreement must acknowledge their plea in open court. Defendants who plead guilty after plea negotiations do not surrender their right to appeal their convictions to the Appellate Division of Superior Court.
Defendants pleading guilty to crimes are subject to a Presentence Investigation, conducted by probation officers or case supervisors on the judges team in the Criminal Division.
Pre Trial Intervention Program (PTI)
Criminal Division Case Supervisors conduct investigations on adult defendants who apply for Pretrial Intervention. This is a diversionary program which permits certain defendants to avoid formal prosecution and conviction by entering into a term of court supervised community living, often with counseling or other support. Criminal Division Managers direct this program. Case supervisors prepare reports to aid the Criminal Division Manager and the prosecutor in deciding whether to recommend approval and for criminal judges determining if defendants will be admitted. Defendants opting for this program apply directly to Criminal Division Management. Case supervisors conduct investigations into the history of all applicants, to ensure their eligibility. Admission to the program requires the consent of the prosecutor, the Criminal Division Manager and the criminal judge.
Defendants charged with violent offenses generally are not admitted. Probationers and parolees are also generally excluded, since they have prior convictions. Persons accused of racketeering or organized crime are generally not admitted, as well as public officials who are accused of abusing their positions for personal gain against the public trust. Prosecutors must be consulted before an applicant charged with a first or second degree crime can even be considered for PTI.
The objective of PTI is to provide an incentive for first time non-violent offenders to rehabilitate. Conditions attached to judicial orders for pretrial intervention may require defendants to obtain a substance abuse evaluation, participate in substance abuse or mental health counseling or community service, or submit to urine testing, pay restitution and fines, or give up a firearm or driver’s license. Participants have criminal charges formally suspended for up to three years. Once a participant completes the program, charges are dismissed. However, if defendants fail to complete special conditions attached to their term of PTI supervision, the participant can be terminated from the program, triggering a resumption of the formal criminal process. These defendants may face indictment and trial, and if convicted, face the penalties prescribed by the criminal code. The Administrative Office of the Courts maintains a computer registry of all PTI applicants, to ensure a person is not admitted into PTI more than once.
For More Information Contact your local Superior Court Division
The Grand Jury
If a criminal case has not been, downgraded, diverted or dismissed, the prosecutor will present the case to a grand jury for an indictment. The grand jury is composed of a group of citizens who have been selected from voter registration, drivers license and tax lists. The grand jury considers evidence presented by the county prosecutor and determines if there is sufficient evidence to formally charge defendants and require them to respond to the charge(s). An indictment is not a finding of guilt. Generally, neither the accused nor their attorneys are present. Witnesses normally testify regarding the crime. After considering evidence, if a majority of the 23 jurors vote to indict defendants, they must face further criminal proceedings. The return of an indictment is called a true bill. If a majority finds the evidence to be insufficient to indict, the grand jury enters a no bill and the charge(s) are dismissed. The jury may, however, decide to charge defendants with a less serious offense, to be downgraded or remanded to the municipal court. The accused must appear in municipal court to face a disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons charge.
The Indictment Process
If a criminal case has not been downgraded, diverted, dismissed, or pled out, the prosecutor will present the case to a grand jury for an indictment. The grand jury is composed of a group of citizens who have been selected from voter registration lists. It is their civic duty to serve. They consider evidence presented by the county prosecutor and determine if there is sufficient evidence to formally charge the defendant and oblige him to respond to the charge(s). The indictment is not a finding of guilt or a conviction. Witnesses may testify regarding the crime. Defendants may testify, however, if they are requested to attend and elect to surrender their right against self incrimination as guaranteed by the constitution. After considering the prosecutor’s evidence and the testimony of witnesses, if a majority of the 23 jurors vote to indict the defendant, he must face further criminal action. This finding is a true bill that triggers further proceedings in the Criminal Superior Court. If a majority finds the evidence to be insufficient to indict, the grand jury enters a no bill and the charge(s) are dismissed. The jury may, however, decide to charge the defendant with a less serious offense, to be heard in municipal court. In this instance, the offense has been downgraded or remanded. The accused must appear in municipal court to face a disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons charge.
The Pre-Arraignment Conference and The Arraignment
Within twenty-one days of the return of an indictment, a pre-arraignment conference is held. This pre-arraignment conference is scheduled by Criminal Division Staff. Defendants may wish to apply for public defender representation at this point if they are not yet represented. Prior to this conference, discovery or evidence is available to defense counsel. This exchange of evidence provides the defense with an opportunity to review the evidence the prosecution intends to use against the accused prior to the conference. After reviewing the discovery provided prior to the pre arraignment conference, defendants may decide to apply for Pretrial Intervention, or to enter plea bargain negotiations. Defendants may also indicate their intention to plead guilty to the charge for which they were indicted.
Arraignment/Status Conference Standards
A formal arraignment occurs no later than 50 days after an indictment. Upon notification by the Criminal Division, defendants must appear and face formal notification of their charges. They may plead guilty at this point, either to the charges listed in the indictment, or to revised charges resulting from plea negotiations. If plea negotiations are ongoing, the parties may review the status of the plea offer. Defendants may also opt to apply for the Pretrial Intervention program at this juncture, or be admitted into the program if they have not applied prior to arraignment. If a guilty plea is entered at the formal arraignment, Criminal Division judges order a presentence investigation to be conducted by Criminal Division case supervisors. Sentencing will follow the presentence investigation, generally 4 to 6 weeks after convictions.
Status Conferences and the Pretrial Conference
Defendants who have pleaded not guilty at this point may continue plea negotiations or preparation for trial. Pretrial case resolutions may occur at a status conference, where a defendant may decide to enter a guilty plea with or without a negotiated plea bargain.
At Pretrial Conferences, defendants may enter a guilty plea to the charges. At the Pretrial Conference, there is a plea cutoff date, after which no further plea negotiations can occur. If no agreement to plead guilty is reached, the matter will proceed to trial.
Defendants have a constitutional right to a jury trial, but may opt to forego this right in favor of a trial by a judge in the Law Division of Superior Court, Criminal Part. Once a case has been decided, there are two outcomes. Defendants are either found guilty or not guilty by a jury or judge. Normally, an acquitted person has no further obligation to the court, unless they face new charges. Prosecutors have no right to appeal acquittals, and defendants may not be charged twice for the same offense. Defendants who are found guilty, or convicted face sentencing, where punishments are rendered by the judge who tried the case. Once a trial is concluded, criminal judges order a presentence investigation by the Criminal Division on all defendants who have been convicted. Judges set a date for sentencing.
Presentence Investigations, Reports and Sentencing
Criminal Division case supervisors perform presentence investigations for criminal judges who render sentences on all convicted defendants. The presentence investigation report is designed to assist a judge in weighing the circumstances of the crime and a defendant’s criminal and juvenile record and overall life situation to the severity of the sentence. The investigative reports provide a uniform assessment of a defendant’s overall family, medical and criminal background. Offense circumstances are summarized, as well as statements received from victims and their families. Assessments of drug abuse history and the amenability to probation supervision and treatment are addressed. Financial conditions of defendants are considered, since most sentences involve a fine, penalty , restitution or reimbursement to a victim. Assessments of defendants’ situations and their suitability for probation are also discussed. Reports generally recommend either prison or probation. Judges are obviously not bound by their advice, but their insight is essential in the criminal sentencing process.
In most cases, sentencing judges have some discretion or choices on how they will sentence convicted criminals within the parameters of the Criminal Code. This discretion may extend to whether a defendant must serve time in prison, or receive a term of probation. Of course, a judge’s discretion may be limited if there is a plea agreement which contains a sentencing recommendation.
Defendants who are convicted of crimes may appeal their cases to the Appellate Division of Superior Court, which reviews trial records and decides if decisions made by judges in the Superior Court are fair and equitable. Defendants may file motions, or requests to their sentencing judge to have sentences modified, or for other relief.