F.A.Q. – The Criminal Justice System

Q. What is the difference between the Criminal Justice System and the Civil Justice System?

A. The critical difference is the penalty involved and the burden of proof. Those who are found guilty of crimes, even minor ones, risk the loss of their liberty as a result. Civil wrongs are typically addressed by an award of monetary damages. In addition, the burden of proof in criminal matters is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which is much stricter than the “preponderance of evidence” standard that is used in most civil cases.

Q. What is a disorderly persons offense and how is it different than a crime?

A. In New Jersey, there are basically two types of criminal offenses: crimes and disorderly persons offenses. (In other states these two types of offenses are often referred to as “felonies” and “misdemeanors.”) Crimes are punishable by more than six months in jail and are prosecuted by either the County Prosecutor’s Office or the Attorney General’s Office in the Superior Court, which in Essex County is located in Newark. In addition, those charged with committing crimes are entitled to have their matters reviewed by a grand jury and tried by a petit jury. Disorderly persons offenses are punishable by up to a maximum of six months in jail and are typically prosecuted either by a municipal prosecutor or citizen in a municipal court. Those charged with disorderly persons offenses are not entitled to either grand jury presentation or trial by jury.

Q. What is a Grand Jury?

A. Both the State and Federal Constitutions guarantee every individual charged with a crime the right to have their matters reviewed by an independent body before they can be made subject to significant criminal penalties. This body is called a grand jury. In Essex County, there are 10 grand juries in session at any time. Each is comprised of 23 grand jurors who are selected at random from the Essex County adult citizenry by the Assignment Judge of the County Superior Court. Citizens selected to serve on a grand jury meet once a week for 15 weeks. They hear evidence regarding criminal matters and decide if those charged should be “indicted”, or formally made to answer for their alleged offenses. Because of the sensitive and important subject matter that the grand juries deal with, they meet in closed sessions, and all evidence collected by them is kept secret unless and until a Superior Court Judge orders otherwise.

Q. Can I be called to serve on a Grand Jury?

A. Any adult Essex County citizen who qualifies for jury duty can be called to serve on either a Grand Jury or a Petit Jury.

Q. What is the difference between a Grand Jury and a Petit Jury?

A. The Grand Jury focuses only on deciding whether criminal indictments should be handed down. A Petit Jury serves to make findings of fact in either criminal or civil trials and serves only for the course of one trial.

Q. What must the Prosecutor’s Office present to a Grand Jury to gain an indictment?

A. The Grand Jury can indict a person accused of a crime if a prima facie case supporting the charges is presented by the Prosecutor’s Office. This is a lower “burden of proof” than is required for a conviction at trial, where evidence must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”. A Grand Jury indictment is not a finding of guilt; it is a justification to take the case to trial.

Q. What is the difference between the Essex County Prosecutors Office, the State Attorney Generals Office in Trenton, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark?

A. All three offices are involved in and responsible for the prosecution of crime. The U.S. Attorney maintains primary jurisdiction and expertise regarding crimes defined by federal laws, e.g. crimes involving interstate activity or concern. The State Attorney General is responsible for both criminal and civil enforcement of the laws throughout the State. The county prosecutor’s offices, including the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, can be looked at as the local criminal prosecution arms of the Attorney General. However, when criminal matters arise that extensively cross county boundaries or are so complex as to require expensive, specialized resources (for example certain insurance fraud and environmental pollution cases), the Attorney General’s office is often the more appropriate prosecuting agency. Even when the U.S. Attorney or State Attorney General takes the lead in a criminal matter, the Essex County Prosecutors Office often remains involved in investigating and preparing the case.

Q. Why does the Prosecutor’s Office perform investigations when the local police, State Police, FBI, and other federal agencies also investigate crime?

A. The Prosecutor’s Office has an investigation staff of over 130 men and women, led by a Chief of Investigators, having a wide range of abilities and technical support available to them. Local police are usually the first to respond to a crime incident and are generally responsible to secure the scene, protect the public, limit personal injuries and property damages, make arrests and gather all evidence from the scene. Many local departments continue the investigation so as to gather and evaluate “secondary” evidence, e.g. evidence regarding the motives and preparations involved in the crime, the other persons involved, etc. Once sufficient evidence is gained to obtain an indictment, the Prosecutor’s Office becomes primarily responsible to prepare the case for trial. Recall that the “burden of proof” to indict is lower than the burden to convict. Therefore, the Prosecutor’s Office needs the capacity to dig deeper and develop stronger evidence to support the higher burden of proof needed for conviction. Given that investigators at this stage must work very closely with the Assistant Prosecutors handling a case, it makes sense to have investigators and lawyers working together under one roof. The Prosecutor’s Office investigation staff has always cooperated closely with local police, State Police, and federal agencies.