All criminal complaints in Essex County involving indictable crime (as opposed to disorderly persons offenses) are “screened” by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, so as to identify cases that properly state an indictable crime subject to prosecution in Superior Court. The nature of the offense, surrounding circumstances, quality of the evidence and the character of the defendant are considered in making the screening decision. By performing this type of early case screening, cases can be appropriately diverted before they are physically referred to the Prosecutor’s Office, thereby avoiding the waste of time, energy and precious resources.
It is the primary function of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office’s Initial Screening Unit to review criminal complaints with an emphasis on diverting those complaints not warranting prosecution on the Superior Court level to the Municipal Court. The first level of screening done by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office occurs at the point of origin, which for the majority of cases is the municipality. The Initial Screening Unit reviews all criminal complaints involving indictable offenses coming out of Essex County’s Municipal Courts.
Since 2001, the entire municipal screening process has been under the auspices of the Initial Screening Unit. Prior to that, municipal case screening was performed by two separate units. The Unit is headquartered in Newark adjacent to the City of Newark Municipal Court. Approximately sixty percent of the Unit’s workload originates in that Court. Case screening is facilitated through a close relationship with Newark Police personnel and the Newark Municipal Court staff. It is essential to the effective and efficient pursuit of justice that cases be ready for forwarding beyond the municipal screening level with complete supporting documentation at the earliest date possible. With the implementation of the CJP Court in 1987, the municipal courts and police have been under considerable pressure to transport prisoners and paperwork to the Superior Court and the County Jail as soon as possible.
The speed at which this transfer takes place has made it virtually certain that the only police reports available at the time of transfer are the original report and the arrest reports. This unit ensures that at least those reports are forwarded. It also attempts to anticipate and provide additional reports that will be needed prior to Grand Jury presentation. In light of the sheer volume of cases emanating from Newark, the deployment of personnel on site is imperative.
The Initial Screening Unit also pre-screens cases through reviews with law enforcement officers and potential civilian complainants prior to the filing of criminal complaints. Based on the outcome of this review, Assistant Prosecutors determine whether or not a complaint will be handled as an indictable offense or a disorderly persons offense, and whether a warrant or summons should be issued.
Many complaints are also generated from the diverse law enforcement agencies operating throughout Essex County. These agencies include the United States Postal Inspector; New Jersey State Bureau of Parole; New Jersey Department of Corrections; The Port Authority of NY/NJ; NJ Transit Police; The Waterfront Commission; Human Services; and the police departments of Rutgers and N.J.I.T. Each of these agencies files their criminal complaints in the Newark Municipal Court. These cases are then screened by the I.S.U.
The I.S.U. is also assigned the task of reviewing matters referred by the New Jersey Department of Corrections and the New Jersey Division of Parole offices within the jurisdiction of Essex County. These cases involve escapes from correctional institutions (including halfway houses), violations occurring within these institutions, and parole absconder cases.
It should be noted that the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office does not close up shop on Saturdays and holidays. Personnel staff this operation on a rotating/voluntary basis. Every Saturday, the Initial Screening office is staffed by a supervising Assistant Prosecutor, one supporting Assistant Prosecutor and one investigator to review criminal complaints originating in Newark and Irvington. Moreover, another Assistant Prosecutor is assigned on certain designated holidays to respond directly to the East Orange Police Department. In recent years, East Orange municipal court began assigning personnel on the weekends, and this Office has responded by using the weekend staff to include East Orange on a regular basis. The purpose of weekend and holiday screening is to divert, where appropriate, all weekend and holiday arrests that can be handled at the municipal level. Experience has established the necessity of being in operation on Saturday’s and holidays. The burdens of an overcrowded jail and arraignment docket on Monday mornings has been ameliorated by this efficient program.
Assistant Prosecutors prepare forms documenting complaint screening decisions in Newark and other municipalities (via telephonic review), and submit these forms to clerical personnel responsible for compiling weekly and monthly statistics. Similarly, investigative personnel who review municipal cases through daily appearance add their workload information for inclusion. Monthly statistics are forwarded to the Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor and Chief Assistant Prosecutor supervising this unit.
Since 2001, the Initial Screening Unit refers cases to the Central Judicial Processing Unit only where all co-defendant materials are reviewed together. Compliance with this policy has been quite successful and eliminates the unacceptable delays previously experienced when requesting co-defendant information from the Newark Municipal Court.
The Initial Screening Unit requests pertinent Newark Police reports as soon as screening begins. Investigative personnel fax request forms prepared by the evaluating Assistant Prosecutor to the Newark Police Department, regardless of whether the defendant is in custody or not. The policy of requesting and procuring all relevant paperwork at the earliest possible date helps the Unit to reach the goal of ensuring the effective and efficient prosecution of cases. The Unit is making increasing use of digital incident and arrest information via the Integrated Law Enforcement Initiative (ILEI). This system presently permits the I.S.U. legal and investigative staff to access Newark Police Department reports in the review of cases and the preparation of packages and reports for forwarding to CJP and other units of the Essex County Prosecutors Office. This system has been expanded to include the Essex County Sheriff’s Office and other municipal police departments in Essex County.
In late 2012 the ISU began reviewing cases to determine if they were appropriate for referral to the newly established Mental Health Unit. Upon making such a determination, the case is referred to CJP with a directive that it be referred to the Mental Health Unit.
Under the Rules Governing the Courts of New Jersey (R.3:4-2), all defendants charged with an indictable complaint (as opposed to a disorderly persons offense) must appear before a judge to be informed of the charges against them and to arrange bail, if appropriate. Although defendants charged with offenses listed in R.3:26-2(a) can only make their first appearance before the Superior Court, the majority of first appearances are within the jurisdiction of the municipal court. In 1987, a Central Judicial Processing Court was established in Essex County to handle this responsibility for all municipalities in the County. The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office assigns an Assistant Prosecutor / Director and five Assistant Prosecutors to this Court. They are supported by a paralegal specialist. The Assistant Prosecutors appear in Court for arraignment and bail hearings.
In addition, the Assistant Prosecutors and support staff involved in the Central Judicial Processing (CJP) Unit are responsible for case screening. All criminal complaints in Essex County charging an indictable crime are “screened” so as to identify cases that properly state a crime subject to prosecution in Superior Court, and to divert those cases that can be more quickly and appropriately resolved at the Municipal Court level. The nature of the offense, surrounding circumstances, quality of the evidence and the character of the defendant are considered in making the screening decision. The assistant prosecutors performing the screening function can either administratively dismiss the charges, downgrade the charges to non-indictable offenses, or downgrade the charges and refer the case to the Special Remand Court. By performing this type of early case screening, cases can be appropriately diverted before they enter the Grand Jury and Trial stages, thereby avoiding the waste of time, energy and precious resources.
Generally, the first level of case screening in the Prosecutor’s Office occurs at the municipal level by the Initial Screening Unit. Although the Office’s CJP Unit was established for bail and arraignment purposes only, its original function has been expanded to include a second level of screening for most cases. In some cases (certain complaints filed by County and State law enforcement officials), the Assistant Prosecutors in the CJP Unit provide the initial screening. In addition to the screening options discussed above, complaints reviewed by the CJP Unit can be referred to Special Remand Court, where the Prosecutors Office retains the responsibility to prosecute the “tougher and stronger” disorderly persons cases, often involving drug-related offenses. Also, the CJP Unit can schedule cases for an expedited plea conference in the Pre-Indictment Plea Disposition Court, where a plea offer may be discussed.
Indictable cases are referred to any one of 15 Vertical Prosecution Courts or to a specialized prosecution squad. The nature of the offense, surrounding circumstances, quality of the evidence, character and arrest / conviction history of the defendant are all considered in making the screening decision. By performing this type of early case screening, cases can be diverted before they enter the grand jury and trial stages, thereby conserving valuable judicial and prosecutorial resources.
Over the past six years, the CJP Unit has worked in conjunction with the Essex County Chiefs of Police, the Essex County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies to develop standardized arrest and incident reports in addition to a secure electronic data exchange also known as the ILEI (Integrated Law Enforcement Initiative). The ILEI will allow participating law enforcement agencies in Essex County and the New Jersey State Police to share and exchange information electronically through a secure fiber optic network. In 2008, the ILEI “went live”, allowing the CJP Unit to electronically access police arrest and incident reports from the Newark Police Department. In 2009, the Unit worked closely with NPD and other ILEI participants to increase the availability and reliability of information. This development has enabled CJP and ISU attorneys to routinely utilize the network thereby enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of case screening and evaluation. This Unit will continue to benefit as information from arrest activity from the Sheriff’s Office becomes available. The system will eventually expand to all municipal police departments in Essex County.
In 2014, the ISU reviewed a total of 13,792 custodial and non-custodial cases. Of these, 7,522 were downgraded or prosecuted as disorderly persons offenses in Special Remand Court. The remaining cases were mostly transferred to Central Judicial Processing, with a small number referred either to the Mental Health Unit or involving fugitives.
The Central Judicial Processing Unit in 2014 handled 7,494 cases. Of them, 6,520 were referred to the Grand Jury and another 825 cases were referred to the Special Remand Court. The remaining cases were sent back to the Municipal Courts.