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Last Updated on: 6th December 2023, 10:58 pm
New Jersey’s Criminal Justice System: An Overview for the Average Joe
If you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the law in New Jersey, it helps to understand how our criminal justice system works. This article aims to give regular folks an overview, so you know what to expect if you or a loved one gets charged with a crime.
Getting Charged with a Crime
Well, first a complaint has to be filed saying you broke the law. That’ll usually happen when the police arrest you and bring you to the station. They’ll fill out a form with details about whatever offense you allegedly committed, like shoplifting, drunk driving, assault, etc.
This complaint gets sent to the municipal court in whatever town the incident happened in. If it’s a minor thing like a traffic ticket or disorderly conduct, the case may stop there after a quick hearing. But if we’re talking about a more serious felony charge, it gets bumped up to the Superior Court in your county.
County Courts and Hearings
There’s 21 counties in NJ, so wherever you got arrested, your charges will be handled in that county’s Superior Court. Fair warning – their court system can be slow as molasses! It may take weeks or even months before your first hearing.
What happens at that first hearing depends on whether you’re getting indicted or going through preliminary hearings. Indictments only happen with the most serious violent crimes like murder, rape, robbery – stuff that will likely end in prison time. The prosecutor takes evidence to a grand jury to try getting an indictment so you can be formally charged.
For most other felonies and misdemeanors though, you’ll just have preliminary hearings where the judge decides if there’s enough evidence for the case to go to trial. There’s a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo about probable cause and burden of proof… I’ll spare you the boring details.
Possible Resolutions Before Trial
Bottom line, the court has to prove you probably committed the crime before dragging things out to a full trial. And you can always seek bail so you don’t rot in jail for months waiting for your court dates.
Speaking of court dates, even minor cases often have a bunch of ’em before reaching a resolution. There’s hearings to decide bail, hearings to argue what evidence can be used, pretrial conferences, change of plea hearings…not to mention the trial itself if it makes it that far.
And it might not! There’s all kinds of ways cases can end before trial:
- Getting the charges dismissed completely
- Plea bargains – pleading guilty to lesser charges
- Applying for diversionary programs like drug court or probation before judgement
Most cases actually end in some kind of plea deal instead of dragging on to a full trial. Not only can trials be long and expensive, but they also roll the dice on what verdict the jury hands down. Lots of defendants would rather take a deal for lighter punishment than risk the maximum sentence if found guilty at trial.
Key Players in the Court System
I know I’m info dumping a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo! Let me switch gears and talk about the key players you’ll meet on your thrilling journey through justice system land:
First up is the prosecutor, officially called the “State” in New Jersey. They work for the county government and handle all criminal trials and plea bargains there. Prosecutors have a lot of power and discretion over which charges to file and what kind of plea deals to offer defendants.
Facing off against the prosecutor is your defense attorney, whether you hire one or get a public defender assigned because you can’t afford a lawyer. The defense attorney’s job is to, ya know…defend you! They’ll argue to get charges dropped or reduced, seek bail/probation if appropriate, and hammer the prosecutor to get you the best possible plea offer.
If your case goes to trial, your attorney’s job becomes all about finding holes in the prosecutor’s arguments and evidence. They’ll cross examine witnesses against you, object to questionable evidence being used, and tell your side of the story to the jury. Having a good lawyer makes a huge difference!
Speaking of juries, they can be the ultimate deciders for trials in criminal court. Jury selection is a whole process unto itself with both sides trying to weed out anyone who seems biased. They’re looking for jurors who’ll come in open-minded and base verdicts strictly on the evidence and law, not emotions.
And we can’t forget the judges! County court judges get assigned to specific cases for all those hearings I mentioned earlier plus overseeing the trial itself if there is one. They rule on legal disputes between the attorneys and decide how the trial will play out – what evidence gets admitted, how laws apply to the case, etc.
Judges also impose sentences if you plead guilty or the jury returns a guilty verdict after trial. There are sentencing guidelines judges have to follow, but they still have leeway on whether your sentence falls on the lower or higher end.
The Bottom Line
Whew, that ended up being way more info than I meant to cram in! The moral of the story is that New Jersey’s criminal courts are complicated AF. The process drags out across many hearings and legal twists and turns before reaching some sort of resolution.
Having an experienced local attorney in your corner makes all the difference in navigating this confusing system and coming out with the best possible outcome. So if you ever have the bad luck of getting busted in the Garden State, give a lawyer a call after you post bail!