by | Jun 12, 2024

The criminal justice system is a complex and multi-faceted entity designed to uphold the rule of law, protect individual rights, and ensure public safety. Understanding the various stages and components of the criminal justice process is crucial for not only legal professionals but also for individuals navigating the system as defendants (the accused), victims, or witnesses.

1. Investigation and Arrest:

The criminal justice process typically begins with an investigation into a suspected crime. Law enforcement agencies gather evidence, interview witnesses, and identify potential suspects. If there is sufficient evidence to support a suspect’s involvement in the crime, an arrest may be made based on the legal concept of probable cause.

2. Booking and Initial Appearance:

Following an arrest, the suspect is taken into custody and undergoes the booking process, which includes recording personal information, taking fingerprints & photographs, and conducting a preliminary health assessment. Shortly thereafter, the suspect is then brought before a judge for an initial appearance, where charges are formally presented, and the suspect is informed of their rights.

3. Pretrial Release:

New Jersey courts have moved away from monetary bail and now utilize a risk assessment tool to assess whether the accused should be released or detained pending trial. Pretrial release conditions, such as electronic monitoring or check-ins with a pretrial release officer, may be imposed to ensure the defendant’s compliance with the law. When the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that there are no conditions to reasonably ensure the court of the public’s safety and/or the accused’s appearance in court when required, the court may order the defendant be detained. (Note: Please see firm member, Steven F. Wukovits’s June 23, 2023 blog, “Can a Criminal Defendant Be Released Once They Are Denied Pretrial Release by the Court” on the subject of pretrial release.

4. Plea Bargaining and Preliminary Hearings:

In some cases, the prosecution and defense may engage in plea bargaining, a negotiation process wherein the defendant typically agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence and/or reduced criminal charges. (Note: The prosecution and defense may engage in plea bargaining up until a so-called plea “cut-off” date is set by the Court.) Diversionary programs, such as Drug Court and Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI), may also be considered by the defense and applied for by the defendant through their defense counsel. 

(Note: The prosecution must present the case to the grand jury in order for the criminal matter to move forward in the State/County (Superior) Court. The grand jury is simply a group of randomly selected individuals from the community, selected in a manner free of any taint of discriminatory purpose. The grand jurors number no more than twenty-three (23) and no less than sixteen (16) for a quorum.  An indictment may be found only upon the concurrence of twelve or more jurors. It is entrusted to the grand jury whether or not to indict, depending upon whether a prima facie case of a violation of a criminal statute has been made out. The standard is whether there is “evidence, which if unexplained or uncontradicted, would carry the case to a jury and justify the conviction of the accused.”)

5. Trial:

If the case proceeds to trial following an indictment against the defendant, both the prosecution and defense present their arguments and evidence before a judge or petit jury. The burden of proof lies with the prosecution, who must establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense has the opportunity to challenge the prosecution’s case through cross-examination of the State’s witnesses and/or present its own evidence in support of the accused’s defense.

6. Sentencing:

If the defendant is found guilty at trial or pleads guilty by way of a plea bargain prior to a jury verdict, the court later issues a sentence that may include fines, probation, community service, or incarceration. Sentencing aims to balance punishment, rehabilitation, and public safety considerations. N.J.S.A. 2C:1-2(b).

7. Post-Conviction Mechanisms:

Following a conviction, the defendant may have the right to appeal prior decisions by the Court and/or the jury’s verdict based on legal errors or constitutional violations. Additionally, when the convicted has exhausted all avenues of appeal, they may be entitled to post-conviction relief mechanisms, which may provide additional avenues for challenging the legality of a conviction and/or sentence.

8. Reentry and Rehabilitation:

For individuals who serve a period of incarceration, reentry, and rehabilitation programs, including the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP), aim to facilitate their successful transition back into society. These programs focus on providing support services, education, job training, and mental health resources to reduce recidivism and promote successful reintegration.

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