Section Chief: Dana Petrone
Unit Commander: Sgt. Cathy Fisher
Grand Jury – 856 225-8550
Pre-Indictment Conference info 856 225-8432
Sixty-five percent of all cases referred to the Prosecutor’s Office go through the Grand Jury Unit. In 2012 The Unit saw a 13% reduction in caseload due to serious shooting cases and narcotic cases being funneled to specialty units. The remaining cases are assigned to other units within the office. Most notable was that there were over 1,300 additional filings charged in 2012. Of all complaints referred to the office, the unit continued prosecution in approximately 41 percent of the cases received. This year the lawyers downgraded approximately 34 percent and dismissed approximately 1 percent.
The unit reacts to the filing of formal complaints from the 37 municipalities in the County as well as informal referrals from the Board of Social Services, Department of Health and Senior Services, and escapes from penal institutions. The unit does not, as a general rule, initiate independent investigations.
DUTIES & RESPONSIBILITIES
Grand Jury’s legal staff first enters the court process when criminal complaints are filed and forwarded to the Superior Court. The first scheduled appearance for each defendant occurs at the Central Judicial Processing Court (CJP). At that time suspects are arraigned and the defendant’s representation is determined and put into the Court record.
Grand Jury lawyers are provided with complaints, police reports and rap sheets, with which they are able to evaluate the strengths and weakness of the cases. A decision is made whether to refer the matter to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation or to administratively downgrade or dismiss the matter.
The majority of the cases sent from the municipal police departments are transferred to CJP electronically, prior to the CJP date. On September 27th and September 28th, the prosecutor’s office hosted a two day mandatory session training every county police agency on CJP and how to scan the reports needed for CJP. This training was held to prepare the law enforcement agencies for anticipated enactment of web-based distribution of discovery in 2014. Municipal police departments are now able to scan the complaints and police reports into the prosecutor’s office’s system and they are often posted on the computer for our review within hours of the arrest. Prior to the end of 2012, we depended exclusively on the municipal police departments to enter complaints into our office management system. The prosecutor’s office has joined forces electronically with the Superior Court to receive those complaints, thereby ensuring that we receive all complaints in a timely fashion.
This electronic screening program has enable our legal staff to make decisions regarding downgrades and dismissals very early in the process, which allows the investigative staff to begin working on referred cases sooner. Electronic screening also allows victims of crimes to miss CJP hearings. Instead, victims are asked to call before the hearing date and speak to an investigator, who will gather any additional information needed by the legal staff for screening decisions. Central Judicial Processing had been reduced last year to three times a week in an effort to speed up presentation to the grand jury. Digitizing the paperwork associated with CJP screening has increased our efficiency and been very successful.
Once the Assistant Prosecutor screens the cases electronically and refers the cases for possible indictment the superior officer assigns the case to a member of the investigative staff. The investigator obtains any additional evidence or missing police reports for input into the management system about the suspect, creates witness and victim data for subpoena purposes, and contacts victims or witnesses for input.
CJP also enables the assistant prosecutors to schedule the next court hearing, the Pre-Indictment Conference (PIC). At CJP a substantial percentage of the cases that are referred to our office are selected for PIC, which is usually held about four to six weeks after the CJP date. Not every case that comes in from CJP is put on the PIC calendar. The cases are selected based upon the likelihood that they can be disposed of early in the criminal justice process. Lawyers may add cases to PIC after CJP hearing for various other reasons as well.
Virtually all Brimage drug cases and cases involving gun charges are scheduled for PIC. PIC is held every Wednesday in Superior Court. The normal call of the list is anywhere from 70 to 75 cases, and the object of these conferences is to negotiate with defense lawyers on guilty pleas.
Approximately 55 percent of those defendants who appear at PIC resolve their cases by pleas to accusations or disorderly person offenses, acceptance into PTI or dismissal. In 2012, PIC averaged 45 percent dispositions (Accusations, Indictments, Downgrades, Dismissals) a year despite the fact that appearance is not mandatory. Defendants appeared at the rate of 84 percent of the scheduled list.
The investigative and clerical staff both play important roles in both CJP and PIC events. When victims contact our office regarding CJP dates, the clerical staff explains the process to them. The clerical staff also relays information from the victims to the lawyers about availability or related issues. When cases are referred to the office, the clerical staff opens the files and puts the information into the computer system. The clerical staff also creates and sends out the discovery for all of the cases that have a PIC date. Our entire pre-indictment discovery is currently sent out in CD format. Form notices are sent to defendants and victim letters are generated by the victim witness coordinator.
The investigators support the PIC program by ensuring that reports or statements are in the file so that meaningful negotiations can occur. The investigative staff also performs the task of supplementing the information provided from the local police departments. They must locate witnesses and victims and obtain other investigative information to make a case worthy of prosecution. Of course, their investigation may also show that prosecution is not warranted. The investigators’ work closely with the legal staff so that time is managed efficiently for those cases requiring special attention.
The cases that are not resolved at PIC, if deemed appropriate for prosecution, are set up for grand jury presentation by an Assistant Prosecutor. This is the most important stage of the process, as a grand jury must decide whether to indict defendants accused of felony-level offenses. Grand Jury’s secretary sends out subpoenas and generates calendars for the grand juries that meet four days a week for 17 weeks. The lawyers conduct the grand jury proceedings, and often our own investigators are called to testify in those hearings. After the grand jury votes on whether or not to indict, a clerical staff generates the formal indictments. The indictments are reviewed by an assistant prosecutor and then forwarded to the court for filing. Indictments are matters of public record and are frequently the subject of news releases from our office. In addition to the formal presentations are direct indictments for escapes, parole absconders, welfare fraud cases and crimes against the elderly. When a case is not indicted and is referred back to a local court for a hearing or dismissed, the clerical staff notifies all appropriate agencies and interested parties.
Another important segment of the Grand Jury unit is the Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI), an initiative created by the Legislature and Supreme Court. PTI is intended to provide first offenders charged with non-violent crimes an opportunity to escape the full stigma of a criminal prosecution by diverting them before there is a finding of guilt. The program provides those first-time offenders a chance to avoid a conviction by agreeing to conditions of a short-term probation. If the candidate is successful, the charge is ultimately dismissed. The support staff of PTI generates contact with victims so that their rights can be addressed and respected. At times, formal hearings are held to argue about the reasonableness of denials, terminations and issues of restitution.
The Grand Jury Unit also has a senior assistant prosecutor who coordinates both a juvenile and adult drug court program. Approximately 452 defendants applied for drug court in 2012 and approximately 331 (73%) were accepted into the program. The drug court prosecutor coordinates alternate pleas, drug court sentences and the VOPs. The drug court prosecutor also attends all drug court team evaluations, weekly monitoring sessions, and statewide meetings on behalf of the county.
The Grand Jury Unit is responsible for the Pretrial Services Program, instituted in 2011. The program’s mission is to safely reduce the jail population by finding inmates who qualify for conditional release pending disposition of their charges. The office helped create this program and its guidelines. The Grand Jury Unit’s legal staff recommends candidates for the program and offers input as to who is accepted. In addition to the Pretrial Services Program, a daily review is made of all inmates incarcerated in the county jail to evaluate their bail status and recommend any bail change.
After cases have gone through the indictment process and discovery is created for defense counsel, the matter is scheduled for post-indictment court appearances. At this point the file is physically transferred to the Trial Team. The Unit is now preparing discovery and distributing it in CD format post-indictment. The Grand Jury Unit is also responsible for handling numerous pretrial legal motions filed by defense attorneys, such as motions to dismiss cases and indictments. The Unit deal with requests for discovery, parole revocations and legal advice to state and local police departments. It is also responsible three times a year for orientation of new grand jury panels. In order to streamline the process, The Unit created a power point presentation.
In June of 2012, the Grand Jury Unit incorporated Insurance Fraud prosecution. An additional lawyer, investigator and agent were assigned to The Unit to handle only these cases. The Unit is funded by an annual grant from the Department of Law & Public Safety, Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor (“OIFP”). The Unit investigates and prosecutes cases involving all manner of insurance fraud, including but not limited to health care claims fraud, prescription fraud, life, health and disability insurance fraud, workers compensation fraud, automobile insurance fraud, homeowners and commercial property insurance fraud, fraud by public adjusters and contractors and fraud by insurance brokers and agents. The Unit receives referrals through various sources, including OIFP, local law enforcement agencies, the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission, the National Insurance Crime Bureau and members of the public. In addition, the Unit educates and trains local municipal police departments, as well as Camden County Prosecutor’s Office law enforcement personnel. The Unit handled over 282 cases from June to December 2012.
2012 saw the ongoing integration of paperless cases from the CJP stage to grand jury presentation, including documents from all suburban municipalities and all grand jury investigators. The paperless caseload will aid in a future transition to total paperless cases within the office and e-discovery. It also contributes to processing cases and presenting them to the grand jury faster and more efficiently. Through the process of early electronic pre-screening, paperless cases, setting up cases for grand jury presentation at CJP and afternoon grand jury sessions, the Grand Jury Unit continues to cut down its backlog percentage to comply with the AOC’s 60 day standard. For a large county that screened over 11,000 cases this year, our backlog percentage still remained in the bottom half statewide.