27 Nov 23

How Sentencing Works in New Jersey Criminal Cases

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Last Updated on: 6th December 2023, 10:58 pm

How Sentencing Works in New Jersey Criminal Cases

If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime in New Jersey, you’re probably wondering—what kind of sentence am I facing? New Jersey’s sentencing laws are complex, but this article breaks down the basics of how sentencing works after a criminal conviction.

The Sentencing Process

After a defendant pleads or is found guilty in a New Jersey criminal case, the judge orders a presentence investigation report. This gives background on the defendant and helps the judge determine an appropriate sentence. Defendants can also submit sentencing memorandums arguing for leniency.

At the sentencing hearing, the judge considers the presentence report, attorneys’ arguments, victim impact statements, the defendant’s statement, and sentencing guidelines. Then the judge imposes a sentence based on the offense, defendant’s criminal history, and other factors.

Custodial vs. Non-Custodial Sentences

A custodial sentence means incarceration in prison or jail. Non-custodial sentences allow the defendant to remain in the community under supervision. Fines can also be imposed.

For more serious crimes like murder, sentencing laws require mandatory minimum prison terms. But judges have discretion to impose non-custodial sentences for many offenses, especially for first-time offenders.

Factors Judges Consider

New Jersey judges don’t make sentencing decisions randomly. Key factors include:

  • Defendant’s criminal record: Repeat offenders often receive harsher sentences. First-time offenders may get more leniency.
  • Victim impact: Crimes with clearly identifiable victims sometimes bring tougher sentences if the victim suffered substantial harm.
  • Defendant’s background: Factors like age, education, employment, and family circumstances may argue for leniency.
  • Remorse and cooperation: Defendants who accept responsibility and show genuine remorse may receive shorter sentences.
  • Sentencing guidelines: These provide a starting point or benchmark for the appropriate sentence length.
  • Mandatory minimums: Some offenses like drug distribution near a school require set minimum prison terms by law.

While judges consider sentencing guidelines, they aren’t mandatory. Judges have discretion to depart from them if they find good cause.

Possible Sentences After a Conviction

Common criminal sentences in New Jersey include:

  • Incarceration: Jail terms under 12 months, prison terms over 12 months. Length depends on the crime.
  • Probation: Defendants remain in the community under supervision for a set time period, like 1-5 years. They must comply with conditions like drug testing or staying arrest-free.
  • Parole: After serving part of a prison term, defendants are released to community supervision for the remainder. Parole can last up to 5 years. Violating conditions can lead to re-imprisonment.
  • Fines: Monetary penalties. Amounts vary based on offense. Fines often accompany other sentences.
  • Restitution: Repaying victims’ financial losses from the crime. Common in theft, fraud and DWI crashes.
  • Community service: Set number of hours working for approved nonprofits.
  • Drug, alcohol, or mental health treatment: For crimes linked to addiction or mental illness. Treatment aims to reduce recidivism.
  • Driver’s license suspension: Common in DWI cases. Prevents driving for a set time period.
  • Probation before judgment: Defendants enter probationary period before formal judgment. Charges dismissed after successful completion.
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Many sentences combine options, like incarceration plus probation plus fines and restitution.

Sentencing Ranges for Common Crimes

Sentences vary case-by-case, but here are possible ranges for some common crimes in New Jersey:

  • Drug distribution charges: From probation to 10+ years prison. Depends on drug amounts and defendant’s record.
  • DWI (3rd offense): 180 days jail plus fines and license suspension.
  • Theft (3rd degree): 3-5 years prison.
  • Aggravated assault: 5-10 years prison.
  • Robbery: 5-20 years prison.
  • Vehicular homicide: 5-10 years prison plus license suspension.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

New Jersey has mandatory minimum sentences requiring set prison terms for some serious offenses:

  • 15 years for first-degree drug distribution or possession with intent to distribute.
  • 10 years for carjacking.
  • 5 years for second-degree drug distribution or possession with intent to distribute.
  • 3 years for first offense firearm possession without a permit.

Judges cannot give sentences below mandatory minimums no matter the circumstances. However, mandatory terms can sometimes be avoided through plea bargaining.

How Parole Works

Many think parole means early release from prison. But in New Jersey, nearly all inmates serve their full sentence behind bars. Parole mainly applies after release. Offenders are supervised in the community by parole officers for the remainder of their sentence, typically 1-5 years.

Parole aims to help ex-offenders transition back into society. Requirements involve regular meetings with parole officers, drug testing, maintaining employment, etc. Violating parole conditions can result in reimprisonment.

Appealing a Criminal Sentence

Defendants who receive an unexpectedly harsh sentence can appeal to a higher court. Appeals argue the trial judge made an error in applying sentencing laws and guidelines. But appeals courts give great deference to trial judges’ discretion, so winning a sentencing appeal is difficult.

An experienced New Jersey criminal defense lawyer can advise whether grounds exist to appeal a sentence. Common arguments involve the judge improperly considering certain evidence or failing to adequately explain the reasons for the sentence imposed.


  • Sentencing depends on the conviction offense and defendant’s background. First-time offenders often get more leniency.
  • Incarceration lengths vary widely based on crime. Parole supervision often follows release.
  • Alternatives like probation, fines, and license suspension may apply for less serious crimes.
  • Mandatory minimums exist for some drug and weapon offenses.
  • While sentencing guidelines provide benchmarks, judges have latitude to depart from them.
  • If you face criminal charges, don’t leave your sentencing to chance. An experienced defense lawyer can argue for the most favorable outcome possible. They’ll inform you of possible penalties and fight to minimize them through plea negotiations or trial strategy. Don’t hesitate to explore your options
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