The Criminal Justice System: How It Works

Within the criminal justice system, the local or state government investigates crimes and prosecutes people who break the law. It is the responsibility of the government to maintain law and order in our communities. A crime is not only a crime against a person; it is a crime against society, or the State. Because of this, the case is called “the State versus the defendant.” The State takes the responsibility of prosecuting people who break the law and for ensuring general public safety.

Our criminal justice system was also designed to make sure that each and every citizen accused of a crime is treated fairly. Because it is important to be fair, the criminal justice process can often seem slow. Understanding this process helps you know what to expect. It is important to remember, however, that every case is different.


When someone reports a crime or the police catch someone committing a crime, a report of the crime is written. This is called an incident report. An investigation must be done to try to find evidence about the crime and about the person who committed the crime. During the investigation, police officers or other law enforcement officers must find enough evidence to prove that the person accused of the crime really committed the crime.

Before someone can be arrested, the evidence collected by the police must show that there is “probable cause” (good reason to believe) that a crime was committed and that the accused either committed or took part in committing the crime. The investigation leading to an arrest or charge may take a long time, or it may take only a short time depending on many factors: Do the police know who is suspected of committing the crime? Did that person leave the area? Is there any physical evidence to collect? The police and other investigators must find witnesses and talk to them. Scientific or laboratory tests may have to be completed. No matter how long it takes, all information and evidence must be collected so that all the facts can be given to the court.

The Complaint

The criminal justice process usually begins with a complaint. The complaint is an official court document and once it is signed must go through the criminal justice system. In a complaint, either the victim or a police officer accuses a person of committing a crime. The person who signs this document is called the complainant. The complainant swears that the information in the complaint is the truth. The person accused of committing the crime is called the defendant.

Complaints are usually completed in the municipal court of the town or city where the crime took place. The municipal court judge, the court clerk or a police officer in charge can administer an oath to the complainant. This means that one of these officials asks the person filing the complaint to swear that what they say in the complaint is the truth.

A third way someone can be charged with a crime is if the police and the prosecutor’s office investigate a crime and take the information collected (evidence) to the grand jury. The grand jury listens to all the information and decides if the accused could have committed the crime and then makes a formal charge.

The following sections explain how a case involving a crime or indictable offense is processed through the criminal justice system. Non-indictable offenses are handled at the municipal court, except for first appearances for charges placed on warrant-complaints, or pretrial detention hearings.

Arrest and Pre-Trial Release

The last section described the steps leading to the arrest of someone accused of committing a crime. When a person is arrested, the person’s status in the criminal justice system changes. He or she is now a formal defendant. Prior to arrest, a person may have been a suspect or target of an investigation but the arrest makes that person a defendant. The defendant has certain rights, such as the right to an attorney, the right to make a telephone call and the right to medical treatment.

Upon arrest, the defendant is searched and processed by the police or “booked.” This process consists of taking the defendant’s name, address, date of birth, a picture and fingerprints. This procedure is followed in all indictable offenses, every drug, prostitution or shoplifting case, and most domestic violence cases.

With the 2017 criminal justice legislation, the prior resource-based bail system was replaced by a risk-based system.  Accordingly, once an arrestee has been fingerprinted, the police officer will also run what is called a preliminary Public Safety Assessment (PSA), which will make a recommendation as to whether the complaint should be placed on a warrant or a summons.  There are a number of factors that are relevant to the warrant/summons recommendation including the type of charge, the arrestee’s prior criminal record, and history of any failure to appear for court.  The officer may also request that the court deviate from that recommendation, as there are factors not considered by the PSA such as juvenile or out-of-state record, any gang affiliations, or most commonly if there is a need for conditions such as no victim contact.  A court can only impose conditions, such as reporting requirements, no victim contact, no return to the scene of the crime, etc., if a warrant-complaint issues.  If the complaint is issued before the defendant is in police custody, the officer will communicate all known information to the municipal court judge, who will decide whether the complaint should be placed on a warrant or summons.

Essentially, if a warrant-complaint (versus a summons-complaint) is signed against an individual, within 24-48 hours that person must be brought before a municipal court judge for a “first appearance” at the county jail at which time defendant, represented by counsel, will be presented with a copy of his/her complaint, advised of certain rights, provided with his final Public Safety Assessment (PSA) scores, and reviewed for any conditions of his/her release.  An assistant prosecutor represents the State at these proceedings, regardless of whether the charge is indictable or disorderly persons.  If the State files a motion for pretrial detention, essentially asking the Court to hold a defendant without bail pending trial, then the defendant is held over at MCCI for the detention hearing, generally held within three business days at the Monmouth County Courthouse.  The State can request pretrial detention for indictable crimes, and disorderly persons offenses that are domestic in nature.  An intake prosecutor will represent the State at the detention hearings as well, regardless of whether the charge is an indictable or a disorderly persons domestic.

At the first court appearance, the judge hears information about the charges, tells the defendant about his or her rights and asks the defendant to say if he or she is guilty or not guilty. The judge must also decide if the defendant can be released before the trial.

First Appearance Hearings are usually held Monday through Friday at the Monmouth County Correctional Institute (MCCI). When the hearings are held on weekends, holidays, or during scheduled or unscheduled closings, the hearings may be available on the NJ Courts website. To view the Virtual Courtroom hearing on the website, please go to;, select the county name and select “click here” to watch. If the page says, “The video is unavailable”, the court event may not have started. It will be necessary to refresh the browser page until you see the event begin.


Not all defendants are released at the first appearance.  If the State files a motion for pretrial detention, asking the court to hold a defendant without bail pending trial, then the defendant is held over at MCCI for the detention hearing.  Detention hearings are heard in front of a Superior Court Judge, generally held within three business days of the first appearance. The State can request pretrial detention for indictable crimes, and for any disorderly persons offenses that are domestic in nature. An intake prosecutor will represent the State at the detention hearings as well, regardless of whether the charge is an indictable or a disorderly persons domestic.


Intake Case Screening

The primary responsibility of the Unit is to handle first appearances for all complaint-warrants, and all detention hearings for indictable warrants and domestic violence disorderly persons.  The Intake and Screening Unit is staffed by an assistant prosecutor who serves as Unit Director, several additional assistant prosecutors, two paralegals, and numerous support personnel.

The Intake Unit receives all indictable adult complaints, along with any related non-indictable charges and/or motor vehicle tickets, from the 53 municipalities in Monmouth County.  Police reports, criminal case histories, police reports and other relevant documentation is placed in a case file, and is sent to the Unit Director for screening.  After the case is reviewed, a decision is made by the Director to forward the case for Grand Jury presentation, list the case for preindictment court, downgrade the charges and send the case to municipal court, or administratively dismiss the charges outright.  Relevant screening factors include the following: the facts of the case, the strength of the evidence, the possibility of the evidence being suppressed by a court, the defendant’s prior criminal history, the wishes of the victim, the rehabilitative needs of the defendant, and the impact of the crime on society in general.  Some cases that are originally screened for Grand Jury may become re-screened as further information becomes available.

The Intake Unit also incorporates other programs that represent alternatives to traditional prosecution, namely Preindictment Court (PIC), Pretrial Intervention (PTI), and Drug Court.

Preindictment Court (PIC)

The Pre-Indictment Program provides an opportunity for early resolution of simple cases. Pre-Indictment Program is scheduled on a weekly basis, with approximately 30-35 cases listed. PIP provides an opportunity for a defendant, as a represent by a defense attorney, to confer with the PIP prosecutor regarding pending criminal cases. Generally, PIP is appropriate for cases that are straightforward in nature, with presumed non-custodial sentences and involving defendants who are not subject already to supervision or who have matters pending in the trial division.

Pretrial Intervention (PTI)

Pretrial Intervention is a program which diverts a criminal defendant from the normal course of prosecution.  PTI, which lasts from one to three years, requires a defendant to fulfill certain conditions, similar to probation, when admitted to the program.  Upon successful completion of the program, the indictment is dismissed.  The application process requires the PTI prosecutor to review the application an accompanying report prepared by criminal case management, and make a recommendation to the County Prosecutor whether to accept or reject the defendant.  More information about Pretrial Intervention is found in the FAQ section.

Drug Court

The purpose of Drug Court is to provide a treatment-based alternative to worthy prison-bound offenders. One of the roles of the Drug Court Prosecutor is to review each application for Drug Court. The Assistant Prosecutor assigned to Drug Court determines whether each defendant is legally eligible for Drug Court and, if so, whether the Prosecutor’s Office should object to that defendant’s application. In deciding whether to object to an application, the Prosecutor’s Office considers factors such as the extent to which a crime was motivated by a compulsion to satisfy an addiction, and the extent to which a defendant may constitute a danger to the community.

Plea Negotiation

Most cases in the criminal justice system end during plea negotiation. The plea negotiation is an agreement between the assistant prosecutor and the defendant in which the defendant pleads guilty to a crime and the assistant prosecutor agrees to do something for the defendant. Most often the assistant prosecutor agrees to drop some of the charges against the defendant or say that the defendant will be sentenced to a shorter time in prison. Sometimes, plea agreements include a promise by the defendant to give evidence against other defendants in a case.

Plea negotiations happen in almost every case and are a necessary part of the process for many reasons. First, cases end much faster. Also, more cases can be processed in light of a busy and crowded court calendar. Trials are very time-consuming. The assistant prosecutor considers several factors when negotiating, including the type of crime, the prior criminal record of the defendant, the impact of the crime on the victim and the strength of the case.

Plea negotiations are an important part of the process for many reasons. A plea before trial can be a guarantee that a defendant will be punished for the crime in some way. A conviction after a trial is not always guaranteed. It also means that victims and other witnesses will not have to suffer the trauma of testifying in court. Additionally, these cases are handled much faster which means defendants are punished sooner and victims can get on with their lives sooner.

The judge has the final say on any plea agreement. The judge considers the plea agreement at the pre-trial conference or plea disposition conference. During this court meeting, the plea agreement becomes a part of the official court record. The judge can decide not to allow the plea agreement. If this happens, the assistant prosecutor must start plea negotiations over again. If the judge thinks the plea agreement is reasonable, then the judge asks the defendant to say exactly why he or she is willing to accept the plea agreement. The defendant must tell the judge facts about the crime so that the judge can be sure the defendant is the one who committed the crime. None of these statements can be used against the defendant if the case later goes to trial.

If the defendant and the assistant prosecutor cannot agree on a plea, they appear before the judge at the pre-trial conference or plea disposition conference and tell the judge they could not reach an agreement. The judge then sets a trial date.

Grand Jury

In New Jersey, in order for the prosecutor’s office to continue with the prosecution of a case, the evidence that has been collected must be presented to the grand jury. The grand jury does not decide on the guilt or innocence of the person charged with the crime. The grand jury only decides if there is enough evidence to say it’s likely that the accused committed the crime and, if so, formally charges that person with the crime. This formal charge is called an indictment. An indictment gives the person accused of a crime the right to a trial by jury.

The grand jury is composed of 23 citizens who are asked to serve on the jury. Every member of the grand jury is given one vote. In order for the grand jury to indict a defendant, more than half of the jurors must vote to indict.

Grand jury proceedings are private and are not open to the public. The only people allowed in the grand jury room are the grand jurors, the clerk of the grand jury, the assistant prosecutor handling the case, a court reporter and the witness who is testifying. The assistant prosecutor asks witnesses questions about the crime. Then, the jurors have a chance to ask questions. The court reporter records what is said in the grand jury room.

Because the grand jury does not decide guilt or innocence but only whether or not there is enough evidence to say the defendant may have committed a crime, there is no defense attorney in the grand jury room. The defendant may testify if he or she wishes. However, the defendant does not have to testify at any time in any court proceeding if he or she does not wish to do so because the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution says that a defendant does not have to testify.

After hearing all the evidence in the case, the grand jury can conclude the hearing in one of three ways: a no bill, a true bill or a reduction of the charges.

  • By voting a no bill, the grand jury dismisses the charge(s) against the defendant, because there is not enough evidence to say this person may have committed a crime. At this point, no further action is taken and the case is closed.


  • If the grand jury decides to vote a true bill or returns an indictment, the grand jury believes there is enough evidence to say it is likely that the defendant committed the crime. The defendant is arraigned on the indictment and the case is assigned to an assistant prosecutor who prepares the case for trial.


  • The grand jury can choose to downgrade the charges. The case may be remanded or sent back to the municipal court.

The grand jury may also act in an investigative capacity and hear matters in which a criminal complaint has not yet been signed. The grand jury has the right to conduct investigations, call witnesses and subpoena documents. This is called a grand jury investigation and can lead to indictments. If, after the investigation is complete, the grand jury finds there is no evidence of wrongdoing, the jurors can vote that there is “no cause for further action.” The investigation is then closed.

A defendant can waive or give up his or her right to a grand jury hearing by admitting guilt or “pleading guilty” at the first court appearance or anytime afterwards.

It is important to remember that a grand jury indictment is not a conviction. The defendant is still considered innocent. The indictment is only a formal document accusing the defendant of committing a crime.

Arraignment on Indictment

If the grand jury votes a true bill, the defendant must go to the Superior Court, Criminal Division for an arraignment. This is similar to a first court appearance because the defendant is told about the crimes that he or she is accused of committing and is asked to plead guilty or not guilty. If the defendant was not arrested before the grand jury hearing, a warrant complaint is issued.

Once a defendant is arrested, within 24-48 hours that person must be brought before a municipal court judge for a “first appearance” at the county jail.  At the first appearance the defendant, represented by the counsel, will be presented with a copy of the complaint, advised by the judge of certain rights, and provided with his/her Public Safety Assessment (PSA) scores.  After hearing input from the State and the defense, the judge will set conditions for release, such as reporting requirements, no victim contact, and random drug screening.

If the defendant does not appear in court for a proceeding, the judge can issue a warrant for the arrest of the defendant.

The judge also sets a date for a pre-trial conference or a plea disposition conference.

Status Conference

Once the defendant enters a not guilty plea at Arraignment, a judge will set a Status Conference date. At the Status Conference date, counsel shall report on the results of plea negotiations, and such other matters. At that time, the dates for hearing of motions and a further status conference, if necessary shall be scheduled according to the needs of each case. Each status conference shall be held in open court with the defendant present.


All trials for indictable offenses are held at the Superior Court, Criminal Division. Defendants charged with an indictable offense have a constitutional right to a trial by jury. This means that the case must be presented to a jury consisting of twelve people who decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The judge oversees the trial to make sure that all court rules are followed and there are no legal mistakes.

It is possible that the initial court date can be changed many times. This happens because the judge schedules several trials to begin the same day knowing that some cases end by a plea agreement and some cases are not ready for trial on the assigned date. The cases that are ready for trial on the assigned date are told when the trial will actually begin.

The Trial Process

Every trial starts with the principle that defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The assistant prosecutor, who serves on the side of the State, has to prove to the jury that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. “Reasonable Doubt” is an honest and reasonable uncertainty as to the guilt of the defendant after hearing all the evidence. Even if a juror believes the defendant is guilty, but has some doubt about the evidence, then the juror must vote “not guilty.” At the beginning of the trial, the judge gives instructions to the jury. After the instructions to the jury by the judge, the assistant prosecutor and the defense attorney give an opening statement to the jury that tells what each wants to prove about the case.

After the opening statements, the State presents its case about why it believes the defendant is guilty. The assistant prosecutor calls witnesses to the stand to testify, including the victim. He or she may also present scientific evidence. The defense attorney has a chance to question or to cross-examine each of the State’s witnesses. Once the State makes its case and presents all of its evidence, the State rests or announces it is done.

At this time, the defense attorney can ask the judge to dismiss the charges against the defendant or “acquit the defendant” by saying the State did not show enough proof that the defendant could be guilty. The judge must then decide if the State presented enough proof to be considered by the jury. If the judge agrees with the defense attorney’s argument, the judge acquits the defendant and dismisses the jury. At this point the case is over. The defendant cannot be tried for this crime again.

Most of the time, however, the judge does not agree with the defense attorney’s request to dismiss. The defense attorney may present evidence and call witnesses to testify to the fact that the defendant is innocent. The defendant does not have to testify and the judge explains this to the jury. The assistant prosecutor has a chance to cross-examine the defense’s witnesses. When the defense attorney is done, he or she rests.

At this time, the assistant prosecutor is allowed to submit proof in rebuttal or to question specific items or claims made by the defense. After both the assistant prosecutor and the defense attorney have presented their cases, each reviews their cases to the jury in what is called the summation. The defense goes first and the assistant prosecutor goes second. Both review all of the evidence to support why each believes the defendant innocent or guilty.

After the summations, the judge instructs the jury about legal points they should think about in deciding the case. This is called the judge’s charge to the jury and includes general information about criminal procedure as well as information on the laws and issues that are important. The judge’s charge may also include a commentary on the evidence.

The jury then goes to another room to talk or deliberate about the case. All evidence goes with them. If during these deliberations the jury has a question about the evidence or someone’s testimony, the jury foreman or spokesperson writes a letter to the court. The question is answered if possible. The jury deliberates until it reaches a verdict or reports it cannot agree. A verdict is the decision of innocence or guilt to which all jurors agree. If the jury reaches a verdict, they come back to the courtroom where the foreman tells the judge what the jury has decided. Sometimes, the State or the defense wants to make sure that each juror agrees with the verdict. When this happens, the judge asks each juror how they voted.

The verdict must be unanimous. This means that if every member of the jury does not agree, there can be no verdict. The judge talks to the jury again to encourage them to come to a decision. The judge also tells the jurors not to change their minds just to reach a verdict. The jury then goes back to their deliberations. If they still cannot agree, then it is a “hung jury”; the judge declares a mistrial and the defendant may be tried again.

If there is a guilty plea or a guilty verdict when a case goes to trial, the judge sets a tentative date for sentencing. Before the sentencing, however, the Probation Department must complete a report called a pre-sentence investigation report (PSI).

Pre-Sentence Investigation Report (PSI)

The PSI is a confidential, written report that a judge uses to help him or her decide what sentence to give to the defendant. The report has a description of the defendant’s family, medical and criminal background; information about the crime; and other material important to deciding the sentence. The report also includes a statement from the victim about how the crime has affected his or her life and about any monies the victim lost or had to pay because of the crime.


On the day of sentencing, the defendant, the defense attorney and the assistant prosecutor come before the judge in open court for the final determination of the sentence.

At this time, the defense attorney tells the court about any errors the defendant believes are in the PSI. The defense attorney also talks about issues called mitigating factors that may cause the judge to adjust the sentence. The assistant prosecutor tells the court about any reason why the penalty should not be reduced and lists any aggravating factors. The defendant and the victim are also allowed to speak to the court at this time.

The judge considers this new information along with all of the information in the PSI and the law. The judge weighs the aggravating and mitigating factors. He or she then announces the sentence and the reasons for giving that sentence.


Restitution is money the defendant has to pay to the victim for stolen or damaged property, lost wages, medical and/or counseling costs. In New Jersey, restitution is mandatory. The judge must order the defendant to pay restitution as part of the penalty given at sentencing so long as the judge believes the defendant can pay the restitution. Restitution should also be one of the conditions the defendant must meet while on PTI or probation.

The court must hold a restitution hearing. At this hearing, the defendant is allowed to say whether or not he or she thinks the amount of restitution is correct. The defendant is allowed to tell the judge about his or her own money situation and request to make monthly or weekly payments.

By law, restitution cannot be used to pay the victim for “pain and suffering.” The amount of restitution ordered cannot exceed the losses claimed by the victim. The victim can take the defendant to the Civil Division of the Superior Court to sue for additional amounts of money.


If the defendant is found guilty of an offense and is sentenced, he or she has the right to file an appeal with the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. The defendant can ask the appellate court to review all of the hearing and trial records to make sure that no legal errors were made. The defendant can also ask the appellate court to look at the investigative stage which led to his or her arrest. The defendant may even appeal the sentencing which took place after a plea bargain agreement and a non-jury trial.

The state however, cannot appeal an innocent verdict or “acquittal.” The Constitution of New Jersey says that to do so would be “double jeopardy” or trying someone for the same crime twice. The state can appeal to the appellate court if the state believes that the sentence is not correct. Appeals like this are rare.

If the Appellate Division of the Superior Court finds no legal errors which led to a wrong conviction or sentencing, the defendant can appeal to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Not every appeal filed with the Supreme Court is heard. Normally the Supreme Court only hears cases where there is some evidence that a person’s constitutional rights have been violated.

If the Supreme Court upholds or agrees with a decision of the lower court and finds that the defendant’s constitutional rights have not been violated, the defendant can appeal the case to the United States Federal Court system. To do this, the defendant files a petition or formal document with the U.S. District Court seeking a writ of habeas corpus relief. A habeas corpus relief means that the defendant is saying that he or she is being held in prison unfairly, against his or her federal constitutional rights. If the U.S. District Court finds that there is some merit to the defendant’s claim, the U.S. District Court usually gives the State the chance to retry the defendant in order to correct any errors that many have taken place. If the U.S. District Court agrees with the defendant, then the State must turn the defendant over to the court and the defendant is freed. If the U.S. District Court denies the request for relief, a defendant can appeal that decision to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. After that, a defendant may appeal to the nation’s highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court, but very few cases are taken and heard by that court.

As shown above, the defendant has many chances to challenge his or her conviction and sentence by appealing to a higher court. An appeal to all the appellate courts can take years to complete.


Parole is the early release from prison of an offender or inmate under very close supervision. The goal of parole is to help the offender live as a productive member in society and is a privilege given to offenders who earn it. Parole is not a right.

An inmate becomes eligible to be considered for parole after serving a minimum number of years of the sentence or 85% of the court’s sentence. This minimum number is outlined in the law for each offense. An inmate or offender can also become eligible for early release from prison by following all of the rules of the prison and not getting into trouble and by working at a job while in prison. The inmate earns good time credits and work credits.

When an inmate becomes eligible for parole, the parole board schedules a hearing to look at the inmate’s progress. The parole board looks at the inmate’s record to see if he or she has broken prison rules; if he or she is participating in counseling; and if the inmate is working or taking classes. The parole board also looks at reports written by the prison psychiatrist, prison staff, the assistant prosecutor and the judge. The inmate must also have a parole plan which tells about the inmate’s plans after release, such as housing and employment. Finally, the parole board considers any information from the victim. The victim can come to the parole hearing and speak in person or write a letter telling how the crime has affected his or her life.

After the hearing, the parole board reviews all of this information to determine the likelihood that the inmate will not commit another crime. The parole board announces its decision to either allow the inmate out of prison on parole or deny the parole release and set a date when the inmate can be considered again. This date is called the future eligibility term (FET).

If the board believes the inmate is ready for parole, a parole release date is set and conditions of parole are outlined. The conditions include rules that are the same for all released inmates: living in an approved residence and reporting to the parole officer when required as well as special conditions for the individual inmate. Special conditions can include drug or alcohol rehabilitation, mental health counseling, community service, restitution and drug testing.

If a parolee (released inmate) does not meet all of the conditions of parole, then he or she is in violation of parole and can be returned to prison. Additionally, if the parolee commits another offense while on parole, he or she will be returned to prison immediately and will then have to serve all the time remaining in the original sentence.