27 Nov 23

The Role of the Prosecutor in New Jersey Criminal Cases

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Last Updated on: 6th December 2023, 10:57 pm

The Role of the Prosecutor in New Jersey Criminal Cases

In New Jersey, the county prosecutor is in charge of prosecuting most criminal cases. They have a lot of power and discretion over charging decisions, plea bargains, and setting priorities for law enforcement. This article will explain the prosecutor’s role and how it impacts people going through the criminal justice system.

What Does a Prosecutor Do?

The prosecutor represents “the State” and acts as attorney for the government in criminal cases. Their job is to assess evidence collected by police and decide whether to bring charges against a suspect. If charges are filled, the prosecutor handles the entire case until its resolution, either through dismissal, plea bargain, or trial.

Specific duties include:

  • Reviewing investigation reports and evidence like witness statements to decide on charges
  • Drafting charging documents like complaints and indictments
  • Making plea offers and negotiating plea deals with defense attorneys
  • Presenting evidence in court and examining witnesses
  • Making sentencing recommendations

New Jersey prosecutors also advise police on investigations, set priorities and policies for law enforcement, and handle appeals.

Prosecutorial Discretion & Charging Decisions

A key role for prosecutors is deciding whether to bring charges and what charges to bring when there is evidence of a crime. This charging discretion is very broad – New Jersey law sets maximum penalties but lets prosecutors decide how to charge. Factors like criminal history, harm caused, and strength of evidence guide prosecution policy.

Defense lawyers sometimes argue charges are too severe given the facts. But prosecutors usually defend their discretion and argue the law lets them determine appropriate charges. Appeals courts rarely overturn a prosecutor’s charging decisions.

Plea Bargains

Over 90% of convictions in New Jersey criminal cases result from plea bargains between prosecutors and defendants. The prosecutor has a lot of influence over plea negotiations and makes the initial offer.

Common types of plea deals include:

  • Charge bargaining: Dropping or reducing charges in exchange for a guilty plea
  • Sentence bargaining: Agreeing to a lighter sentence recommendation
  • Fact bargaining: Letting defendants plead to less serious facts

Prosecutors have incentives to resolve most cases through bargains to manage their high caseloads. But plea deals also give prosecutors leverage to get convictions while avoiding lengthy trials.

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Impacts on Defendants

The prosecutor’s discretionary decisions greatly impact defendants facing criminal charges. Their initial charging decisions set the stakes for plea negotiations. And plea bargain offers shape the risks a defendant faces at trial versus pleading guilty.

Going to trial versus taking a plea deal is a big strategic decision. Harsher charges and sentencing recommendations pressure defendants towards accepting pleas even if they believe they are innocent. Approximately 20% of convicted defendants who go to trial receive longer sentences than the plea deals they were offered. This “trial penalty” also incentivizes guilty pleas.

Overall, prosecutors have a lot of power through their charging and bargaining decisions to impact the outcome of cases. Checking this discretion is an ongoing issue in criminal justice reform debates. Understanding the prosecutor’s role provides insight into how the system works for people facing charges.