When you are a first-time offender facing a criminal charge, or a parent of a young adult facing criminal charges, it can be stressful, scary, and overwhelming. But the good news is that there are options other than jail time, and the help of an excellent criminal defense attorney can be invaluable. An experienced defense attorney can advise you of your options and help you make the best choice.
Some of the diversion programs available for first-time offenders in New Jersey include:
1. Pre-Trial Intervention
Pre-trial intervention is typically available for indictable or felony offenders with no prior criminal history. The program is an alternative to prison time and serves as a probationary period for anywhere from six months to three years. After an offender completes the program, law enforcement will dismiss the charges.
2. Conditional Discharge
The Conditional Discharge Program is also known as Chapter 36A. The program is available for disorderly persons or misdemeanor drug charges. To qualify for the program, you must have no criminal history and have never had the opportunity to go through a New Jersey diversionary program. Like pre-trial intervention, if the defendant complies with all of the conditional discharge terms for anywhere from six months to three years, law enforcement will dismiss the charges.
3. Conditional Dismissal
The conditional dismissal program is New Jersey's newest diversionary program and applies to petty disorderly persons and disorderly persons offenses or misdemeanors. The offense must have occurred on or before January 4, 2014. The law excludes certain offenses from consideration for the conditional dismissal program, including:
- Certain domestic violence offenses;
- Charges related to breach of the public trust by a public officer or employee;
- Offenses against an elderly or disabled person or a minor;
- Driving under the influence; and
- Animal cruelty.
The conditional dismissal program lasts from one to two years and is similar to the Pre-trial Intervention program.
4. Veterans Diversion Program
The New Jersey Veterans Diversion Program is for veterans who come within the criminal court's jurisdiction. The program helps eligible servicemembers with mental illness suspected of committing a crime.
Pre-trial Intervention Program
The New Jersey pre-trial intervention program is a diversion program intended to help first-time juvenile and adult offenders alternatives to criminal convictions and jail time. If you meet the court's conditions, the court can eventually dismiss your charges. The PTI Program can also help you get counseling, supervision, or other needed services to get your life back on track.
Conditions for Participation
If accepted into the PTI program, a judge can postpone further court actions for up to three years. You are still required to pay mandatory penalties, such as the $50 Victims of Crime Compensation Office penalty and the $75 Safe Neighborhoods Services Fund Assessment. The court may also require you to pay additional penalties and fees.
The court will assign a probation officer to your case and set conditions for your release, such as:
- Random drug screening;
- Community service;
- Mental health screening;
- Drug and alcohol evaluations;
- Treatment recommendations.
If you fail to meet the court's conditions, they will remove you from the PTI program, and you will face continued prosecution.
Eligibility for PTI
You are not eligible for PTI if:
- You previously enrolled in PTI for another offense;
- You were previously in the conditional discharge or conditional dismissal programs;
- You had charges dismissed through the Veterans Diversion Program;
- You participated in a diversion program in another state or federal court for any felony or indictable offense;
- You face charges for a disorderly persons, petty disorderly persons, misdemeanor, or other non-criminal offense unless the offense involves domestic violence.
You need permission from the prosecutor to participate if:
- You face a charge for a crime with a jail sentence or mandatory minimum period of parole ineligibility;
- You have a prior conviction for an indictable offense in New Jersey;
- You have a prior conviction for the same crime in another state or federal court.
If any of these situations apply to you, you must attach a statement with your application explaining why you'd be a good candidate. The prosecutor must agree to consider it before the court will.
The court is unlikely to grant your application if:
- You are a public employee or officer, and your crime involves your employment or office; or
- You face a domestic violence charge that occurred while you were under a restraining order or involved violence or the threat of violence.
Appealing a PTI Decision
If the court denies your application, you can appeal by filing a motion in court within ten days of the denial. You will file your motion with the criminal division's presiding judge or to the judge where your case is assigned.
If you complete the PTI program, the court will have no record for a conviction to expunge. However, you can apply to have your arrest record and criminal complaint expunged.
Conditional Discharge Program
New Jersey's conditional discharge program is for individuals charged with a disorderly persons offense involving controlled substances or drug paraphernalia. If you meet the court's conditions, then the court will dismiss your charges. This program is an attractive option for first-time offenders if you are eligible.
Conditions for Participation
Whether to accept you in the conditional discharge program lies with the discretion of the court. The court will consider:
- The danger you present to the community;
- Whether the supervision terms are adequate to protect the public; and
- Whether you were previously involved in supervisory treatment.
As part of the conditional discharge program, you will undergo supervisory treatment and comply with the court's conditions. Conditions may include random drug testing, drug or alcohol counseling, or mental health evaluation and treatment. If you enter the program after a guilty finding or guilty plea, the court must also suspend your driver's license for at least six months and not more than two years unless there are compelling circumstances. If you violate any terms of the program, criminal prosecution will resume, and you will face the original charges once again.
As part of the conditional discharge program, the court will still impose fees and penalties. The court will expect you to pay the $75 application fee, the $75 safe neighborhood assessment, a $50 lab fee, a $75 law enforcement training fee, and a $500 mandatory drug enforcement penalty. The court may impose additional fines as well.
Upon completing the program, the court will dismiss your charges, and you will have no criminal conviction on your record. You may later request that the court expunge your arrest record and complaint.
Eligibility for the Conditional Discharge Program
You will not be eligible to participate in the conditional discharge program if:
- A court previously convicted you of any offense under the Controlled Dangerous Substances Act;
- You have ever participated in the Conditional Discharge Program in the past;
- You participated in the PTI, Conditional Dismissal Program, or Veterans Discharge Program in the past.
Someone with a prior juvenile conviction involving a controlled dangerous substance may still be eligible for the conditional discharge program. See State v. Teitlebaum, 160 N.J. Super 430 (1978).
Conditional Dismissal Program
New Jersey's Conditional Dismissal program is similar to other diversionary programs like PTI and Conditional Discharge. It offers first-time offenders an opportunity to avoid trial and conviction and maintain a clean record. The program is for non-indictable offenses, so crimes like shoplifting, simple assault, or disorderly conduct may be eligible.
Conditions of the Program
If you meet the eligibility requirements, you apply for a conditional dismissal after your guilty plea or a finding of guilt by the court, but before the court enters a judgment of your conviction. You must notify the prosecutor as well. You must submit to fingerprinting so that the court can verify your prior criminal history.
To determine whether to admit you to the Conditional Dismissal program, the court will consider:
- The nature and the circumstances of your offense;
- The facts surrounding the offense;
- Your motivation, age, character, and attitude;
- The desire of the complainant or victim to avoid a trial or forego conviction;
- The needs of the community and their interests in the matter;
- Whether your offense was violent or assaultive;
- Whether you injured someone or could have injured someone;
- Whether your diversion is in the public interest;
- Whether your participation will adversely affect the prosecution of any co-defendants;
- Whether your behavior or crime is part of a continuing pattern of anti-social behavior; and
- Any other factors the court deems relevant.
If admitted, the court will then suspend your conviction for a period of probation, typically for one year.
Even if the court admits you to the program, you will still be assessed fines and fees, including the $75 application fee and any assessment the court makes based upon the nature of the offense and your character. The assessment won't exceed any penalty the court could have assessed as a result of your conviction.
If you fail to comply with the program's conditions or commit another crime during the program, the court may enter a conviction against you. The court may also enter a fine, penalty, or other assessment per your prior guilty plea. If you complete the Conditional Dismissal program, the court will dismiss the charges.
Eligibility for the Program
You may be eligible for the Conditional Dismissal program if:
- Have no convictions for petty disorderly persons or misdemeanor charges in New Jersey;
- Have no convictions for disorderly persons or felonies in New Jersey;
- Have not previously participated in a conditional discharge program;
- Have not previously participated in supervisory treatment;
- Have not previously participated in a conditional dismissal program; and
- You are currently charged with a disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons offense.
You are not eligible for the Conditional Dismissal program if your charge involves:
- Organized criminal or gang activity;
- A continuing criminal business or enterprise;
- A breach of the public trust by a public employee or officer;
- Domestic violence;
- An offense against a minor, elderly, or disabled person;
- Operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol;
- Animal cruelty;
- Disorderly persons drug offense; or
- Petty disorderly persons drug offense.
After you complete the Conditional Dismissal program, you will have no criminal record, and the court will have no record of your conviction. After completion, you may apply to have the court expunge your arrest record and complaint after six months.
Veterans Diversion Program
New Jersey's Veterans Diversion Program helps servicemembers with mental illness avoid jail time for eligible offenses. Instead, the program diverts veterans to existing community and government-based resources to get them the help they need.
Eligibility for the Veterans Diversion Program
To enter the Veterans Diversion Program, you must be an eligible servicemember:
- A service member currently serving or a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces or reserves, or organized militia of the State of New Jersey under N.J.S.A. 38A:1-3;
- Have an eligible offense, including non-violent petty disorderly offenses, disorderly offenses, or 3rd or 4th-degree offenses; and
- Have a mental illness.
The prosecutor has the sole discretion for admission to the Veterans Diversion Program. See N.J.S.A. 2C:43-26b. However, no candidate can have a statutory disqualifier. See N.J.S.A. 2C:43-26.
As part of the Veterans Diversion Program, the New Jersey Department of Veterans and Military Affairs works to provide all members of the program with mentors to "assist an eligible servicemember who is a veteran in accessing assistance to resolve the underlying problems that led or contributed to the eligible servicemember's involvement with the criminal justice system."
Do I Need an Attorney?
If you're facing criminal charges, it's best to consult an experienced criminal attorney. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a seasoned New Jersey criminal defense attorney, and he can help. If you or someone you love is a first-time criminal offender, you need an attorney who can explain your options and negotiate with prosecutors. Contact criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento online or call his law firm at (888) 535-3686 for the legal help you need at this challenging time in your life.