Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) is used in certain instances to help defendants who have not committed any other crimes in the past become “rehabilitated” and to establish a good reputation once again. This program is like being on probation without being convicted of a crime. In Essex County, applications by defendants for PTI are reviewed by a paralegal assigned to the Prosecutor’s Office PTI Section. The Director of the Section then reviews each file for completeness and PTI appropriateness and makes a recommended disposition to the supervising Executive Assistant Prosecutor. The Executive Assistant Prosecutor is responsible for final decisions on PTI applications. Rejection letters are prepared by the paralegal and reviewed by the Director who also handles PTI appeals at the trial level.
The PTI Section is currently staffed by a Director, two paralegals and two clericals. The unit also handles applications for expungements of criminal records. All petitions for expungement are reviewed by a paralegal, who also obtains all necessary information to verify the statements in the petition. The Director reviews each file as well as the proposed orders.
In order to streamline operations, PTI decisions in cases involving charges of sexual assault, child abuse, arson, and domestic violence are made by the directors of those designated sections. In the past, the directors of these units offered recommendations but the final decision was made by the Director of PTI and the Executive Assistant Prosecutor who supervises PTI matters. If PTI applications are received with inadequate time to make decisions before the next court date, the courts are notified of what has occurred and are requested to grant additional time so that an informed determination can be made.
The Essex County PTI Section assigns a paralegal to perform extensive research, from numerous sources such as municipal courts, the computer system and old archived file cards, to obtain the necessary information in expungement matters. As for significant crime problems, the most prevalent in terms of PTI applications are receiving stolen property (stolen cars) and CDS cases (usually cocaine or heroin, with fewer involving marijuana, and a few involving Ecstasy). Attempts are made to tailor conditions of PTI to the individual applicant to maximize his/her potential for rehabilitation. This involves standard requirements such as obtaining a GED, or attending CDS rehabilitation-as well as, in appropriate cases, requiring a defendant to pay (even non-court-ordered) child support, or meet other obligations.
In 2014, the volume of applications to the PTI Unit remained extremely high as defendants filed a total of 384 applications for admission. The PTI Unit accepted 240 defendants into the program and rejected 144 applications.
One 2014 PTI case of note was State v. Justin Lee, where the State successfully opposed defendant’s application for PTI. Defendant was charged with several counts of Aggravated Assault upon a police officer. The defendant appealed his denial to the Appellate Division, which, in a published decision, reiterated that our Office properly exercised its discretion in denying the PTI application.
The PTI Unit also processed 803 expungement applications. A noteworthy 2014 expungement case was State v. Marcus Brittle, where the State successfully opposed both the granting of a discretionary “Early Pathway” as well as a “traditional” expungement.
The Essex County Drug Court is a unique court for non-violent drug dependent offenders who are identified through a screening process as being most likely to benefit from treatment and not likely to pose a risk to public safety. The Drug Court functions within the existing Superior Court structure, but links the criminal justice system with drug treatment and rehabilitation services. Its purpose is to break the cycle of addiction and recidivism among non-violent drug offenders. Offenders receive intensive supervision and swift sanctions for non-compliance as they undergo treatment and counseling for their drug and alcohol addictions. Public safety issues are served by closely monitoring each defendant with probation officers who operate under the model of Intensive Supervision of Parolees. The program involves a team approach on the part of judges, court staff, attorneys, probation officers, substance abuse evaluators and treatment counselors, all of whom work together to support and monitor a participant’s recovery.
The Essex County Drug Court was started in 1999 with the assistance of federal planning and implementation grants. Other counties have adopted similar programs, including Camden, Mercer, Union and Ocean Counties. In June, 2000, the state Judicial Council cited drug courts as a “Best Practice” and called for comprehensive statewide implementation. Early studies indicate that drug courts reduce recidivism and drug abuse, while providing significant cost savings to the public from reduced incarceration costs.
The Essex County Drug Court team continually monitors offender progress to define parameters of behavior that allow continued program participation and suggests effective sanctions and incentives for program compliance. Team members are knowledgeable about addiction, alcoholism, and pharmacology and apply that knowledge to respond to compliance in a therapeutically appropriate manner. The team continually educates the community, civic and social organizations, and judiciary regarding the efficacy of Drug courts.
The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office is obviously a key member of the Drug Court team. The Assistant Prosecutor/Director responsible for Drug Court ensures community safety concerns by maintaining eligibility standards for the admission of offenders into the Drug Court program. The Director is assisted by various Assistant Prosecutors for Drug Court pleas, violations of probation, sanctions and sentencing.
The Program’s reporting year is from July 1 to June 30. For the 2014 Court year, 498 applications were submitted for legal consideration. A total of 345 TASC evaluations were conducted by substance abuse evaluators. A total of 201 defendants were admitted into the Essex County Drug Court Program. There are approximately 400 to 500 active participants in the program.
The Mental Health Diversion Initiative was spawned in part because we recognize a lengthy prison sentence is not always the right result. Many defendants who come in contact with the criminal justice system have a history of mental illness. Simply seeking the toughest penalty allowed by law often seemed an inadequate response to the underlying problem. With that in mind, more than a year ago we began working with court officials, mental health experts and the Office of the Public Defender on a Mental Health Initiative. By December 2012, a program at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office was officially launched, and a Mental Health Unit was established.
Designed to identify non-violent offenders with a history of diagnosed mental illness such as schizophrenia, the program diverts these defendants to treatment programs as either an alternative to incarceration or in conjunction with incarceration.
Modeled after a similar program already in place in Union County, the Essex County initiative is designed to create a path where qualifying individuals can obtain long term treatment. The aim is to reduce the likelihood of these individuals escalating to more serious offenses and, ultimately, to reduce the recidivism rate among the mentally ill.
The objective of this initiative is to keep the community safer by providing defendants with individualized treatment plans coupled with both judicial monitoring and community support. It is not enough to simply arrest and prosecute offenders. The mental health initiative, sometimes referred to as problem-solving justice, is similar to drug courts. It gives everyone in the criminal justice system the tools to make better informed and more effective decisions. Through a system of rewards and sanctions we hope to break the cycle that for far too long has resulted in mentally ill defendants being arrested time and time again.
In 2014, the Mental Health Unit continued to grow and provide a place to refer defendants with a history of mental illness. Funded by a state grant, the Essex County Hospital Center has hired a full-time case manager to work exclusively with the ECPO’s Program participants. The Case Manager is responsible for linking participants to a treatment developed by a mental health professional, and will also assist participants with applying for social entitlements, housing, education, vocation, and other benefits that contribute toward greater functioning in the community.
The County Hospital Center also hired a Clinician to screen and assess applicants for acceptance into the Program. This Clinician, a Licensed Specialist Clinical Social Worker, or LCSW, will develop a comprehensive community-based therapeutic treatment plan for acceptable Program candidates. Also, funded by a state grant, ECPO has partnered with Rutgers University, School of Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions. Rutgers is now analyzing data collected from program participants to help determine the effectiveness of the program in reducing recidivism and reintegrating the target population into society.