If you have ever wondered how someone that steals a piece of fruit from the grocery store does not face ten years in prison or if someone convicted of homicide does not face 6 months in jail, it all comes down to the way an offense is graded. Grading occurs by degree of severity. The more severe an offense is, the penalties involved become that much more serious. In addition, although it is wrong to steal something, it would not serve the interests of justice to be ten years in prison for something that is worth 85 cents. As such, the degree of the offense often correlates with the underlying allegations involved.
In order to know the degree of an offense in New Jersey, it is critical to understand what an offense is. The word offense in New Jersey is two-fold and can be used interchangeably. Oftentimes, the word offense refers to a crime, felony or indictable charge. A crime in the State of New Jersey is an act contrary to a statute that, if convicted, holds a sentence beyond six months. Crimes are the most serious offenses because the risk of jail or prison is most severe with gross financial penalties involved. Crimes are designated as first, second, third or fourth degree.
Important Terminology for Determining the Severity of a Criminal Offense in New Jersey
- First Degree Crime: Being convicted of a first-degree offense will result in the most extreme sentence. First degree crimes can include certain sex offenses involving children, kidnapping, criminal homicide, aggravated criminal sexual assault, arson, drug distribution, and more. Crimes of the first degree generally carry a term of imprisonment between 10 and 20 years with a fine up to $200,000.
- Second Degree Crime: Second-degree crimes can lead to a maximum of 10 years in prison with a fine up to $150,000. There are many different crimes that are second degree, however, the most common are unlawful possession of a firearm, aggravated assault, certain shoplifting offenses, certain drug offenses, possession of weapons with an unlawful purpose, etc.
- Third Degree Crime: A fine up to $15,000 and a prison term up to 5 years are the penalties for a third degree crime in New Jersey. Frequently, drug offenses, terroristic threats, possession of certain weapons like BB guns, eluding, and many other offenses can constitute third degree crimes in New Jersey.
- Fourth Degree Crime: Possession of Hollow Nose ammunition, drug distribution and possession charges, and shoplifting may be graded as fourth degree indictable offenses. Commonly individuals face up to 18 months incarceration with fines stretching up to $10,000.
- Extended Term of Imprisonment: An individual who has been convicted of a crime of the first, second or third degree may face an extended term of imprisonment if he or she meets particular criteria. Specifically, if the person is a persistent offender, a professional criminal, or if the individual has been convicted of a certain offense are most commonly the reasons an extended term may be imposed.
- Presumption of Non-Incarceration: Once an individual is convicted of certain third or fourth degree offenses, it is presumed that the offender will not be sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
- No Early Release Act: Pursuant to the No Early Release Act, individuals convicted of certain crimes must complete 85% of one’s sentence before parole eligibility.
Superior Courts have the jurisdiction to hear crimes or indictable offenses. If you have been convicted of a crime by either being found guilty or entering a plea of guilty to a particular crime, you will have a sentencing hearing after being convicted of the offense.
Factors the Court Considers for Sentencing in Morris County NJ
To determine an offender’s appropriate sentence, the Court considers enumerated aggravating and mitigating factors defined under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1. In addition to the statutory factors, the Court is also guided by the sentencing presumptions listed under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(d) & (e). Moreover, a custodial term may be imposed if the Court finds that imprisonment is essential to protect the public. To make such a determination, the Court looks at the nature and circumstances of the offense together with the history, character and condition of the defendant. Further, the Court also may evaluate the aggravating factors set forth under N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a).
What does it mean to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors?
In order for an individual to be sentenced by the Court, the State and defense may argue that an offender should be given a particular sentence. In doing so, the parties put forth on the record reasons the Court may find in support of and in opposition of a particular sentence. For example, aggravating factors may include: the nature and circumstances of the offense, the role of the actor therein, including whether or not the offense was committed in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner; the risk that the defendant will commit another offense; the need for deterring the defendant and others from violating the law, and more.
Oppositely, mitigating factors may include: the defendant having no history of prior delinquency or criminal activity or has led a law-abiding life for a substantial period of time before the commission of the present offense; the defendant’s conduct was the result of circumstances unlikely to recur; the character and attitude of the defendant indicate that he or she is unlikely to commit another offense; the imprisonment of the defendant would entail excessive hardship to his or her dependents; etc.
What if my charge does not have a degree and it says something else on my complaint?
If a complaint indicates that you are being charged with a disorderly persons offense or a petty disorderly persons offense that means you are looking at misdemeanor level charges. Picking up from where we left off earlier about the term offense having two meanings, this term is also used to refer to low-level charges as well. Municipal Courts have the authority to hear lower-level cases (and traffic offenses) because the financial penalties and jail time involved are not as severe as felony offenses. Lower-level offenses are disorderly persons or a petty disorderly persons offenses. In fact, these offenses have the least exposure among all criminal violations of New Jersey laws. Notably, despite their minimum penalties, an individual will have a criminal record once convicted of either misdemeanor or felony offenses.
What if I’m charged with multiple crimes of varying degrees?
Being charged with multiple crimes can expose you to a great deal of upheaval in your life because of the amount of prison time and financial penalties involved. In other words, each charge carries its own set of penalties and fines. For example, if you have been charged with second degree unlawful possession of a weapon AND possession of a weapon with an unlawful purpose then your maximum exposure from these charges alone are $300,000 and twenty years in prison. Similarly, if you are charged with simple assault, a disorderly persons offense, which is a case that could be in the Municipal Court, but you also have a third degree eluding charge, then your entire case may be disposed of at the County Superior Court due to the level and severity of the other charges involved. Ways to avoid such a severe sentence may be to enter a negotiated plea, build a strong defense refuting the charges or entering a diversionary program, if applicable to your case.
It is important to speak with an attorney to handle your felony or misdemeanor offenses because convictions can severely impact your future through housing, employment and much more. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney with offices in Morristown, New Jersey today for a complimentary consultation.