Wednesday, April 8 2020

Grand Jury/Case Screening Unit

The Grand Jury/Case Screening Unit reviews all cases in Burlington County in which an adult has been charged with an indictable offense or Disorderly Persons offense which was placed on a warrant. The majority of cases involving indictable charges are handled or prosecuted at the Superior Court level as indictable matters, although some may be downgraded and referred to municipal court for prosecution as well. Those cases already involving Disorderly Persons charges are returned to the municipal courts for resolution.

It is the responsibility of the assistant prosecutors in the Unit to screen all cases for factual and legal sufficiency. When additional issues are identified, or further investigation is warranted, the assistant prosecutors work with municipal police departments and county detectives to focus investigative resources and gather additional evidence. The assistant prosecutors also assist police officers with initial charging decisions. Once a case has been thoroughly screened and investigated, it is the responsibility of the unit’s assistant prosecutors to present the cases to the Grand Jury. From there, the case is passed onto the Trial Team Unit.

In addition to screening each case, the assistant prosecutors in the unit administer the Pre-Indictment Program, referred to in this county as PIP. PIP is an alternative disposition tool for criminal matters which allows for possible pre-indictment resolutions of cases which might otherwise have been presented to the Grand Jury.

An indictable charge can be resolved by way of a plea to an accusation, with some occasionally being resolved for a lesser disorderly person offense.

Another facet of the Grand Jury/Screening Unit is the Drug Court Program. Drug Court is a program for eligible defendants which focuses on treatment and rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration. The program is for those defendants who commit not only drug offenses, but other crimes motivated by drug addiction. The Drug Court assistant prosecutor reviews every Drug Court application, represents the State’s interests to ensure that only qualified defendants are admitted, and prosecutes defendants within the parameters of Drug Court.

The Screening/Grand Jury Unit consists of the supervisor, a Drug Court assistant prosecutor, a designated Dangerous Offenders Section assistant prosecutor, four Screening/Grand Jury assistant prosecutors, one detective, a lieutenant, two prosecutor’s agents, and five members of the clerical support staff.

Beginning on January 1, 2017, New Jersey implemented the Bail Reform system, a sweeping restructuring to the state’s prior monetary bail system. This reform was voted into existence in the 2014 election as an Amendment to the New Jersey state Constitution. In summary,

The Bail Reform Law replaces the current resource-based system with a ‘risk-based’ approach, requiring courts to assess the likelihood that a defendant will flee, commit new criminal activity, or obstruct justice by intimidating victims and other witnesses. [T]his predictive process…[is] informed by an objective pretrial risk-assessment process that has been designed and validated through empirical research. See N.J.S.A. 2A:162-25(c). The use of a validated pretrial risk assessment instrument represents a major advance toward a just and effective pretrial release system.

From the law enforcement perspective, of course, the most important feature of the Bail Reform Law is that dangerous defendants can be detained by court order. Consistent with law enforcement’s core mission, our principal goal in implementing the new statute is to protect the safety of the community, victims, and witnesses. It is especially imperative to ensure that criminal justice reforms safeguard the rights of crime victims, including their state constitutional and statutory right to participate in the criminal justice process and to have meaningful input in prosecutorial decisions that affect their interests.

[Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, Directive Establishing Interim Policies, Practices, and Procedures to Implement Criminal Justice Reform Pursuant to P.L. 2014, e. 31, http://www.nj.gov/oag/dcj/agguide/directives/2016-6_Law-Enforcement.pdf (2018)].

Before the advent of Bail Reform, defendants charged with even the most serious offenses were entitled to bail and were often released within hours of being arrested. Those defendants who could not make bail were held in jail until the resolution of their matter. This often adversely impacted poorer defendants who could not afford even a minimal bail. Now, with the advent of bail reform, those defendants deemed the most dangerous to society or the most likely to commit a new offense can be detained without bail pending the resolution of their case. These Bail Reform laws have dramatically reduced the jail population across the state.

What is more, the impact of these laws on public safety has been slight. In the years prior to bail reform, released defendants showed up for 92.7% of pretrial court appearances, 12.7% of them were subsequently charged with a new indictable offense, and 11.5% were charged with a new disorderly persons offense. In the first year of bail reform alone, released defendants showed up for 89.4% of court appearances, 13.7% were charged with a new indictable offense, and 13.2% were charged with a new disorderly persons offense.

Implementation of the Bail Reform laws, however, has led to an exponential increase in workload for the staff of this Office. Under the Bail Reform system, each defendant who is arrested on a warrant must have a First Appearance before a judge within 48 hours of arrest. In order to meet this requirement, First Appearances occur Monday through Saturday. In addition to appearing in court, the Assistant Prosecutors handling the First Appearances must prepare each of the cases for this initial hearing, which includes reading and summarizing the facts of the case and the defendant’s criminal history, determining which defendants should be detained, and filing all required motions for such detention. A defendant whom the State has moved to detain is required to have his or her detention hearing scheduled and heard within three business days. Each detention hearing consists of oral argument by both the State and defense counsel, submission of multiple pieces of evidence, and then a ruling by the judge. These hearings occur on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays each week. Assistant prosecutors in the Screening/Grand Jury Unit handle all detention motions filed within this county, with the exception of a few cases handled by Assistant Attorneys General.

Every defendant who remains detained following his or her detention hearing must have his or her case either indicted by the Grand Jury or resolved within 90 days. The detective and prosecutor’s agent assigned to this Bail Reform sub-unit (or the “Dangerous Offenders section” as it is called in this Office) are responsible for ensuring that each file is ready for then detention hearing and then, if the defendant is detained, further readying the case for presentment to the Grand Jury. In 2018, the detective and agent assigned to the Dangerous Offenders Section prepared almost 1,200 cases for detention hearings and indictment.

The other two case agents and the detective assigned to the Screening/Grand Jury Unit prepared another 1,063 cases for indictment. In 2018, the assistant prosecutors of the unit processed over 4,990 indictable defendants and an additional approximately 500 defendants facing only Disorderly Persons charges who were charged on a warrant, and therefore, required a First Appearance. The number of indictable defendants handled by the Office increased approximately 3% from 2017, and approximately 11% from 2016.

The assistant prosecutors also indicted 1,413 defendants and pled 461 defendants by way of Accusation in 2018. This is approximately 28% and 39% more defendants indicted or resolved by accusation, respectively, than in 2017.

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