Criminal Practice Division

The Criminal Practice Division develops and implements policies and best practices to advance the goals and mission of the Judiciary in areas related to criminal justice.

On This Page

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Contact Information 

Donna Westhoven, Assistant Director, Criminal Practice Division
609-815-2900 ext. 55301

The following statewide directories are available: 

Services

Visit our Self-Help Center if you are representing yourself in a court matter. You can also:

Online Tools

The Criminal Practice Division offers several online tools. You can file cases electronically, look up criminal court cases, and find legal practice resources.

Key online tools:

Forms

Find the forms needed in the criminal practice division.

Reports and Legal Reference

Here are some primary reference materials for criminal practice:

Here are some key reports on the Criminal Practice Division.

The Criminal Justice Process

Intake

The Superior Court criminal division manages the criminal justice process. The process begins with an initial criminal complaint and ends with resolution or disposition.

A defendant is charged with a criminal offense when:

  • Police issue a formal complaint
  • A citizen accuses them of a crime
  • A grand jury issues an indictment

Arrests can occur at the scene of a crime or from warrants or sworn statements. All arrests need to have probable cause. This means there is reason to believe the defendant committed a crime.

Complaints list the reasons for the charge reference offenses listed in the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice (Title 2C). The Superior Court hears or considers criminal offenses.

A criminal conviction or guilty verdict in the Superior Court has major consequences. Punishment could include probation, fines and restitution, and imprisonment. Crimes are classified by degree from first to fourth.

Degree Potential Prison or Jail Term
First-degree 10-20 years
Second-degree 5-10 years
Third-degree 3-5 years
Fourth-degree Up to 18 months in jail

Defendants convicted of first- and second-degree crimes will probably go to prison. Third- and fourth-degree sentences might include prison or jail time, but it is not assumed.

Complaints heard in municipal courts are disorderly persons offenses or petty disorderly persons. Disorderly persons offense can result in up to 6 months in jail. Petty disorderly persons offenses might result in up to 30 days in jail.

First Appearance and Setting Conditions of Pretrial Release

Once a complaint is issued, a defendant is either arrested on a warrant or issued a summons to appear before a judge. This is known as a first appearance.

Criminal justice Reforms, implemented on January 1, 2017, mandate a first appearance within 48 hours of going to county jail. During the first appearance, a judge will either:

  • Set conditions of pretrial release
  • Order pretrial detention, or
  • Set a bail when applicable.

The judge might issue an arrest warrant if the defendant does not show up for the first appearance.

Bail

Criminal justice reforms, implemented on January 1, 2017, changed how bail works in New Jersey. Bail is an option in very limited number of cases. Defendants arrested prior to 2017 can still post bail. If bail is posted, defendants are released until the charges are resolved.

Bail conditions are typically set during the first appearance. Defendants might be required to:

  • Post or deposit funds or property as a guarantee they will appear in court
  • Give a personal bond (Forfeiting a set amount of money as promise to appear)

Defendants using a personal bond might pay a bail bondsman to post funds for them. These defendants could be ordered to post a higher bail or have no bail set. They will remain in jail until the charges are resolved. If they appear in court as required, bail money should be refunded in full at the end of the case. Once defendants are released, bail is discharged to the surety.

Some defendants might qualify for a Release on Own Recognizance (ROR). This applies to first time offenders and defendants with significant community ties. ROR is an affidavit certifying that they are aware of the charges and will appear to face them.

When a bail is set, a Superior Court judge in the criminal division might order a bail investigation. Bail investigators collect information on the defendant's:

  • Ties and standing in the community.
  • Names, addresses, dates of birth.
  • Employment, criminal record, mental health, and drug abuse history.
  • Amenability to bail.

Bail investigation reports consider how serious the crime was and how severe punishment might be if convicted. They also report on the defendant's family ties and financial status. These factors are all weighed with the likelihood the defendant will appear in court. Bail investigators report to the judge, who decides the amount and form of bail to be set, if any.

Right To Counsel

All defendants have a right to an attorney. Defendants can hire a private attorney or be assigned a public defender. Private attorneys are usually either self-employed or work for private law firms that charge an hourly rate for services.

When a defendant claims they cannot afford an attorney, the criminal division launches an indigence investigation. Criminal division staff investigate the defendant’s finances to determine what they can afford.

Defendants are assigned a public defender or pool attorney when it is determined they cannot afford a private attorney. If the investigation reveals that a defendant can afford an attorney, the application might be denied.

A criminal division judge might make the final decision to order a defendant to hire an attorney, allow pro se (self) representation, or order a defendant to consult an attorney who might take their case at a reduced rate.

Pre-Indictment Events

Before indictment, the county prosecutor’s office will decide whether to pursue the case. They will decide if the charges have merit and if there is sufficient evidence. This process usually includes reviewing police reports and interviewing victims and witnesses. If there is insufficient evidence, the charges could be downgraded, sent back to municipal court or dismissed.

Substance Abuse Evaluations

According to state and federal estimates, up to 70 percent of people charged with a crime were on drugs during the crime. The criminal division’s treatment assessment services for the courts (TASC) evaluates criminal defendants. Substance abuse evaluators:

  • Interview defendants.
  • Subject them to urine drug screening.
  • Prepare drug assessment reports for criminal judges.

The reports detail drug abuse histories and identify treatment needs. When addiction support is needed, the report recommends counseling at local drug and alcohol treatment centers. Judges can order defendants into drug or alcohol treatment as a condition of their pretrial release or probation.

This program helps judges determine appropriate community support systems for defendants released from jail. Failure to complete treatment can result in sanctions, including revoking probation and a loss of liberty. For defendants with severe drug addictions, receiving court-mandated treatment becomes not only a choice between jail and community living, but one of life and death.

Plea Bargains

In many cases, the prosecutor and defense attorney will negotiate a plea bargain. In a plea agreement, the prosecutor might offer a reduced sentenced in exchange for a guilty plea. In some cases, the charges are downgraded or dismissed. Maximum sentence terms could also be part of negotiated agreements. Criminal Division individual judge teams, managed by team leaders, establish a court date for the plea to be entered on record.

Defendants entering a plea must sign a statement certifying they:

  • Understand the plea.
  • Enter into the agreement voluntarily.
  • Were not pressured from the prosecution or their own attorney.
  • Know judges are not bound by the agreement during sentencing.

If a judge concludes that the plea bargain is too lenient, the judge can reject the plea. The judge might then order the prosecution and defense parties to renegotiate, or order the matter set down for trial.

Criminal Division probation officers conduct presentence investigations when defendants plead guilty.

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. The collected data is used to create statistical reports and monitor backlog.

Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI)

Pretrial Intervention is a diversionary program that permits certain defendants to avoid formal prosecution and conviction. Defendants enter a term of court supervised community living, often with counseling or other support.

Criminal division managers direct the program. Probation officers investigate the history of all applicants to ensure their eligibility. Their reports aid the Criminal Division Manager and the prosecutor when deciding to recommend approval. They also assist criminal judges determine if defendants will be admitted. Defendants opting for this program apply directly to appropriate criminal division manager’s office. Admission to PTI requires the consent of the prosecutor, the criminal division manager, and the judge.

Certain charges and defendants are generally not admitted. These include:

  • Defendants charged with violent offenses.
  • Probationers and parolees since they have prior convictions.
  • Persons accused of racketeering or organized crime.
  • Public officials accused of abusing their positions for personal gain.

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 incentivize first time, non-violent offenders to rehabilitate. Defendants need to comply with conditions attached to judicial orders for PTI. These can include:

  • Urine drug screening.
  • A TASC evaluation on substance abuse.
  • Participating in substance abuse or mental health counseling.
  • Paying restitution and fines
  • Community service
  • Surrendering firearms or a 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, they can be terminated from the program.

Termination resumes the formal criminal process. Defendants then face indictment, trial, and, if convicted, the penalties prescribed by the Criminal Code.

The Administrative Office of the Courts maintains a computer registry of all PTI applicants. This ensures no one is admitted into PTI more than once.

See the Pretrial Intervention (PTI) Brochure and Pretrial Intervention (PTI) Application for further information or contact your local Superior Court Criminal Division.

For more information, Contact your local Superior Court Criminal Division.

The Grand Jury and The Indictment Process

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 a group of citizens selected from voter registrations, drivers’ licenses, and tax lists. It is their civic duty to serve.

The grand jury considers evidence presented by the county prosecutor. They then determine 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. Neither the defendants nor their attorneys are present. Witnesses normally testify regarding the crime.

If a majority of the 23 jurors vote to indict, the finding is a true bill that triggers further proceedings in the Criminal Division of Superior Court.

If a majority finds the evidence to be insufficient, the grand jury enters a no bill, and the charge(s) are dismissed. The jury might, however, decide to charge the defendant with a less serious offense. The defendant must then appear in municipal court to face a disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons charge.

The Arraignment

An arraignment is the formal notification of the charges against the defendant. It occurs within 14 days of the indictment. Once notified by the criminal division, the defendant must appear before a judge for the arraignment. Defendants can apply for a public defender at this point if they do not have 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.

After reviewing the discovery provided prior to the arraignment, the defendant might decide to apply for Pretrial Intervention (PTI), or to enter plea bargain negotiations. Defendants can also plead guilty. Criminal division probation officers investigate cases where defendants plead guilty at the formal arraignment. Sentencing will follow the presentence investigation, generally four to six weeks after convictions.

Disposition/Status Conferences and the Pretrial Conference

Defendants who have pleaded not guilty at this point can continue plea negotiations or trial preparation. Pretrial case resolutions can occur at a disposition/status conference, where a defendant can plead guilty, with or without a negotiated plea bargain.

At the pretrial conference, a plea cutoff date is set, after which no further plea negotiations can occur. If no plea agreement is reached, the matter will proceed to trial. Criminal division staff track conferences to ensure that cases are moving without undue delays.

The Criminal Practice Division at the Administrative Office of the Courts evaluates statistics in each criminal court to monitor the overall case movements statewide. It also assists local court staff to address backlog if it should occur.

Trials

Starting on January 1, 2017, Criminal Justice Reform laws require certain speedy trial deadlines. Defendants have a constitutional right to a jury trial but can waive this right in favor of a trial by a judge. Once a case has been tried, there are two outcomes: guilty or not guilty.

Normally, an acquitted person has no further obligation to the court unless they face new charges. Prosecutors cannot appeal acquittals and defendants cannot be charged twice for the same offense.

Defendants who are found guilty or convicted face sentencing. Punishments are rendered by the judge who tried the case.

Once a trial is concluded, the criminal judge orders a presentence investigation. The criminal division investigates all defendants who have been convicted. Judges also set a date for sentencing.

Presentence Investigation Reports and Sentencing

Criminal division probation officers prepare presentence investigation reports (PSIs) for criminal judges who render sentences convicted defendants. The reports assist judges in weighing the circumstances of the crime to the severity of the sentence. The PSI provides:

  • A uniform assessment of a defendant's overall family, medical and criminal background.
  • A summary of the offense and circumstances.
  • Statements from victims and their families.
  • Assessments of drug abuse history.
  • A convict’s amenability to probations supervision a treatment.
  • Financial conditions of the convict since sentences involve fines and restitution.
  • The convict’s situation and suitability for probation.

Reports generally recommend either prison or probation. Judges are not bound by the probation officers’ report, but their insight is essential in the criminal sentencing process.

Judges consider the degree of harm and hardship imposed on victims and their families. They will with the mitigating factors of the crime against aggravating factors, which are elements that speak to the severity of the crime. Prior criminal record weighs heavily. It indicates a defendant's potential for rehabilitation and the risk posed for another crime.

In most cases, judges have some discretion or choices on sentencing convicted defendants within the parameters of the Criminal Code. This discretion might extend to whether a defendant must serve time in prison or receive a term of probation. Of course, a judge's discretion can be limited if there is a plea agreement that contains a sentencing recommendation. Some crimes, such as convictions for using a gun during a robbery, carry mandatory prison terms. The judge must sentence a defendant to prison for at least a minimum term.

Post-Conviction Motions

Convicted individuals can appeal their cases to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. The Appellate Division reviews trial records and determines if the judge’s decisions in the Superior Court are fair and equitable. Defendants can file motions or requests to their sentencing judge to have sentences modified or for other relief.

Teams in Criminal Division Case Processing

Criminal Division offices are organized into "teams." There are individual judge teams, where each criminal judge is assigned a team leader. Teams include:

  • Clerical staff
  • A court clerk
  • A group of probation officers
  • Investigators

All team members work on the cases their trial judge will hear. Each team manages the calendar and scheduling of all court events for that judge. The team also completes PTI and PSI reports. The team provides courtroom support, computer data entry, and manages active court files and records. The teams coordinate court dates with prosecutors and public defenders, who also are assigned to the judge. Team members work in unison and one member can generally perform the work of other members. Their familiarity with each other's work and their judge improves efficiency and the overall case flow.

Veterans Assistance Project

The Veterans Assistance Project (VAP) is a voluntary referral service for veterans who come in contact with the court system and who may be in need of veterans services from their local veterans service office. The goal is to acquire services and support to improve the quality of life for the men, women, and families who have made sacrifices in the defense of the United States. Available services can include mental health counseling, addiction services, legal services, and housing.

The project is a combined effort of the Judiciary, the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA), and the New Jersey Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) to connect service members who come into contact with the courts and who need help with existing community services as well as mentors to address those issues.

It is not a diversionary program. The project is geared toward identifying veterans who have come into contact with the courts and referring them for available services. The referral is voluntary.

The project also involves a mentoring component that is being developed by the Adjunct General. During the assessment process, the local veterans service officer will determine whether the veteran could benefit from assignment of a mentor. If so, and if a mentor can be identified pursuant to the list developed by the Adjunct General, one will be assigned.

Highlights

  • The project targets court-involved persons who have served in the military.
  • It is a collaborative effort involving the Judiciary, DMAVA, and DMHAS.
  • The Judiciary component offers voluntary identification and referral to one of 16 state veterans services offices (VSOs).
  • The project has been spearheaded by the criminal division.
  • The Judiciary began a county-by-county rollout in December 2008.
  • The project now operates statewide.
  • The Adjutant General shall develop and coordinate a volunteer-based program comprised of former service members to assist and mentor veterans who become involved with the criminal justice system. In addition, the Adjutant General shall develop a registry of volunteer mentors and make the registry available.

Statewide Referrals since Inception = 4,595 (as of 11/01/2022)

Facts

  • DMAVA estimates that, as of Sept. 30, 2022, there were 310,802 veterans in New Jersey, of which 26,434 were women.
  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has identified substance use disorders as one of the three most common diagnoses amongst veterans, with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury in second and third place.
  • The January 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that approximately one out of six veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom have a substance use disorder.
  • A Veterans Health Administration National Center for PTSD fact sheet reports that PTSD symptoms can indirectly lead to criminal behavior or through direct linkage of a traumatic incident to a specific crime.
  • 19 percent of the veterans who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly 300,000 people, reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
  • The Survey of Inmates in Local Jails reports that 9.3 percent of people incarcerated in jails are veterans.
  • The primary offense for 70 percent of incarcerated veterans was a non-violent crime, and 45 percent had served two or more state prison sentences.
  • At minimum, 90,000 of the 9 million unique inmates annually released from U.S. jails are veterans. A large majority (82 percent) are eligible for VA services, having been discharged either under honorable (65 percent) or general with honorable (17 percent) conditions.

Collaboration

DMAVA provides a range of programs, assistance and support services to veterans and their families. DMAVA operates 16 VSOs that help veterans access federal and state benefits to which they may be entitled. For this project, once a veteran has been identified in the court system and volunteers to participate, the local VSO is notified and assists in identifying and providing the services needed by the veteran.

DMHAS is the state mental health authority that oversees and has primary responsibility for funding the public adult mental health system. In addition to various psychiatric hospitals and units, the division has contracts with more than 120 not-for-profit community providers. For this project the DMHAS and its service providers assist in identifying veterans and providing mental health services for those veterans in need of such services.

The cooperation of municipal prosecutors and public defenders, county jail personnel, health service providers, and superior court public defenders and prosecutors is also crucial. Each of these entities assists in identifying veterans and recognizing the need for services.

History of the Program

In 2008, the New Jersey Judiciary piloted the VAP in the Municipal Court and Superior Court Criminal Divisions in the Atlantic and Union counties. Within the first year, three additional counties had implemented the project and five others were in the planning stages.

The pilot project was designed to identify veterans as soon as possible after they entered the criminal justice system and when needed, provide referrals to the local VSO to connect those veterans to community resources to address the unique services they need. Those services could include a thorough assessment, identification of specific military entitlements, referrals for individual and family counseling, medical and legal assistance, educational and vocational training aid, and other community services.

The intention was to connect defendants with services to which they are entitled and to help alleviate negative factors that may have contributed to their involvement in the criminal courts.

Soon after the pilots in Atlantic and Union began, the Judiciary recognized that the VAP could be accessible to other court-involved veterans. Counties that were creating VAP planning teams and hosting meetings included representatives from the civil, family, municipal, and probation divisions. Today, the project is statewide and operates in all 21 counties.

Process for Linking Veterans to Services

Veterans are identified at the earliest possible point as they enter the court system. There are multiple points at which a referral to a local VSO can be initiated. For example, self-identification as a veteran is solicited when persons enter county jails, municipal and superior courts, and as existing probationers report to the probation department. Once a veteran has self-identified, a referral to the VSO can be prepared if the veteran volunteers to participate. Completed referral forms are directed to the criminal division, where the referral is entered into the VAP database and then electronically sent to the local VSO.

Management and Coordination

The Criminal Practice Division of the Administrative Office of the Courts provides programmatic support and assistance in the planning, implementation and operation of the VAP and collects and maintains monthly statistics that reflect the number of unique referrals forwarded to the local VSOs by each county. Each vicinage criminal division manager and staff provides local project management and coordination.