Understanding the Criminal Justice Process in New Jersey

Posted on behalf of James Lynch on September 12, 2017  in Criminal Law News. Updated on November 1, 2022

criminal courtWhen a person is suspected of a crime, there are certain legal procedures that the prosecutor, law enforcement and other parties must follow. The complete criminal justice process in New Jersey is explained below.

If you believe you are suspected of a criminal offense, it is important that you contact an experienced New Jersey criminal defense lawyer. Our attorneys can take steps to protect your legal rights and guide you through the criminal justice process.


The criminal justice process begins well before you are arrested for a crime. In a typical criminal case, law enforcement is contacted regarding a crime. In other cases, law enforcement officers may personally witness a crime.

Law enforcement personnel investigate the crime by gathering any evidence, such as fingerprints, photographs of the scene, DNA evidence, recorded footage or other pieces of evidence that may help explain how the crime occurred. Law enforcement may also interview eyewitnesses and the victim.

Criminal Complaint

If there is enough evidence to show that there is probable cause, or good reason to believe that a crime was committed and that the suspect committed the crime, a criminal complaint is prepared. This complaint is usually supported by a witness signing an affidavit under oath or by law enforcement stating the facts and signing the complaint under oath.

If a person is suspected of a minor infraction, he or she may receive a summons to appear in municipal court. Serious complaints, also called indictable offenses, are warrant complaints in which a judge signs an arrest warrant for the named defendant. These cases are heard in superior court and can include cases involving murder, robbery, arson, burglary and manslaughter.

In other situations, the prosecutor convenes a grand jury. This group listens to the testimony that the prosecutor presents and determines if the defendant could have committed the crime based on these facts. If the grand jury believes the defendant could have committed the crime, the prosecutor makes a formal charge.


With an arrest warrant in hand, law enforcement can arrest the defendant. He or she will be searched and then booked, or processed by police. This process involves taking the defendant’s information, his or her mug shot, and fingerprints.

Initial Appearance

Within 12 hours of the defendant’s arrest, he or she will go to court for an initial appearance, also called an arraignment. The defendant appears in front of a municipal or superior court judge, depending on the arresting authority and the type of offense.

At this hearing, the judge hears information about the charges and informs the defendant of his or her rights. The defendant must plead guilty or not guilty. Typically, the defendant pleads not guilty at this appearance, but he or she may change this plea later in the criminal justice process. The defendant’s criminal defense attorney may speak for the defendant.

At this hearing, the judge determines whether or not to release the defendant with or without bail. The judge may consider a number of factors when making this determination. Two main considerations are whether the defendant would be a risk to society or a flight risk if released.

The judge may order the defendant to be kept in jail until the criminal case concludes, to be released without any payment of bail or to pay a certain amount of bail to be released.

Review of Charges and Plea Bargaining

At this stage in the process, the prosecutor’s office has a lot of power in determining whether or not to continue with the case and in what way. The prosecutor may agree to a diversionary program, such as a pretrial intervention program, drug court, drug counseling or another mutually satisfactory agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant.

In some cases, the defendant’s attorney may be able to convince the prosecutor to dismiss or reduce the charges against the defendant. With a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty to an offense in exchange for more favorable terms, such as reduced charges or a lighter sentence.

Indictment by Grand Jury

If a plea agreement is not reached, the prosecutor must present all evidence in the case to a grand jury, which will decide if there is enough evidence to believe the accused committed the crime.

The grand jury, consisting of 23 citizens, will vote:

  • No bill – The grand jury dismisses the charges because there is not enough evidence to say the person committed the crime.
  • True bill – This is called an indictment, where the accused is formally charged with the crime because the grand jury believes there is enough evidence to say the accused likely committed the crime.
  • Downgrade – The grand jury reduces the charges and sends the case back to municipal court.

Grand juries do not decide guilt or innocence. They only determine if there is enough evidence to believe the accused could have committed the crime.

Pre-Arraignment Conference

Within 21 days of the indictment, the prosecutor is required to share the evidence it plans to use against the defendant with his or her defense attorney. A formal arraignment is held within 50 days of the indictment in which the charges are read to the defendant and he or she pleads guilty or not guilty.

During this stage, the criminal defense attorney and prosecutor may still try to resolve the case through a plea agreement.


The case then moves toward trial before a jury consisting of 12 people who decide the innocence of the defendant.

Every trial begins with the principle that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. During trial, the prosecutor presents evidence to try to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, while the criminal defense attorney attempts to argue why the defendant is not guilty.

Witnesses testify about what they know about the crime and the defendant and are questioned by the prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. The defendant may testify or may not.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury determines if the defendant is innocent or guilty based on the evidence presented. Unless a juror believes the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he or she must vote “not guilty.”


For serious crimes, there is usually an additional hearing regarding the defendant’s sentence. Before the judge imposes a particular sentence, the criminal division case officers conduct an investigation and prepare a report to the court. The judge considers this report and other information when imposing a sentence.

If a defendant is found guilty of a crime, and is sentenced, he or she has the right to appeal the decision with the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.

Contact an Experienced New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney

Being involved in the criminal justice system can be an emotionally difficult time. A skilled criminal defense attorney can examine the nature of the charges that you are facing and can fight to protect your rights during every stage of the process.

Call Lynch Law Firm, PC at (800) 518-0508  for a free case review.

* Results may vary depending on your particular facts and legal circumstances.

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