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How does Sentencing Work for Criminal Charges in New Jersey?

June 16, 2023

If you get Convicted of a Crime in NJ, Here’s How the Court Determines Your Sentence

Criminal sentencing lawyers in Burlington County NJ

Going through the criminal justice process can be long and grueling. There is no getting around the emotional turmoil of an arrest and conviction, whether by jury trial or plea negotiation. Once convicted, the most sobering stage follows—sentencing. Once a judge pronounces a sentence, they have studied the case facts, the prosecutor’s recommendations, possibly the victim statements, among other details, to arrive at a sentence. A just sentence is supposed to punish but potentially rehabilitate a convicted defendant, while also deterring crime and protecting the public. New Jersey’s sentencing guidelines attempt to balance the aims of the criminal justice system and keep sentences relatively uniform. 

What do the New Jersey Sentencing Guidelines Do?

N.J.S.A. 2C:43-1-22 contains the sentencing guidelines that judges must follow when deciding if or how long a convicted individual is incarcerated. New Jersey’s sentencing guidelines begin with establishing the crime’s severity. For example, those who commit first degree crimes can count on going to prison for some length of time, as those are the most severe crimes, like murder and aggravated sexual assault. Those crimes carry a presumption of incarceration. On the other hand, third and fourth degree crimes do not carry such a presumption. Second degree offenses have a presumption of incarceration, which can occasionally be avoided through special agreements with the prosecutor or permission to apply to a diversionary program like Pre-Trial Intervention. Disorderly persons offenses are lower offenses typically handled in the municipal court and do not carry an assumption of jail time.

Whether a judge decides to incarcerate someone for a crime lesser than second degree rests on the nature of the crime and the perpetrator’s criminal history, character, and circumstances. Judges look to satisfy the aims of sentencing, which are crime deterrence and public protection when sending someone to prison, so a crime such as third degree theft may not be severe enough to throw someone in jail unless certain other factors warrant it, such as if perpetrator has a history of thefts and seems like a habitual repeat offender.

Are there Exceptions to the NJ Sentencing Guidelines?

A judge may not imprison someone if doing so would create a grave injustice that outweighs the purpose of prison terms, to punish and deter crime (N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(d)). A grave injustice is more than the defendant’s or their family’s hardship if the defendant is imprisoned. Additionally, some individual crimes, such as second motor vehicle theft, carry imprisonment presumptions.

What are the Sentencing Ranges for Criminal Offenses in NJ?

Those who commit second or first degree crimes are presumed to face incarceration unless a rare exception exists. Barring an exception, a person who gets a first degree criminal conviction is looking at 10 to 20 years and 5 to 10 years for a second degree criminal conviction. A judge has more discretion in sentencing third and fourth degree criminal convictions. Without an incarceration presumption, a court can sentence an individual convicted of burglary or another third or fourth degree crime to probation, a fine, restitution, and community service, especially if the defendant has no prior criminal history and is amenable to rehabilitation.

Otherwise, a conviction leads to three to five years in prison, and fourth degree crimes, like forgery or shoplifting items worth less than $500.00, result in up to 18 months in jail. A disorderly persons offense conviction could lead to six months in jail and a $1,000.00 fine, and the least of them all, the petty disorderly persons offense, is punishable by 30 days in jail and a $500.00 fine. Thus, each crime level has a prison term range upon which a judge bases a sentence.

Balancing Aggravating and Mitigating Factors During the Criminal Sentencing Phase

Starting at the middle point in the sentencing range, say, 2.5 years for a third degree crime, a judge may consider any aggravating factors, such as victim injuries or weapons involved in committing the crime. Aggravating factors like someone getting hurt, using a handgun, committing a crime of extreme cruelty, crimes against first responders or public servants, crimes against extremely old or young victims, crimes using a motor vehicle to escape, crimes involving fraud against state governments or divisions, and recidivism risks, add months or years onto a sentence.

Inversely, mitigating factors reduce months or years from a sentence or result in a lower crime grade level. So, an accused who cooperates with law enforcement and shows genuine remorse may receive a shorter sentence than the midrange. Other mitigating factors include crimes without actual or threatened severe harm, a defendant’s coercion into committing a crime, a victim’s provocation causing the offense, a defendant paying restitution or performing community service, a clean criminal record, an especially young and impressionable defendant, and cooperation with law enforcement.

When and Why do Extended Sentences Occur for Criminal Charges in NJ?

While sentencing starts with the prison or jail range according to the grade or offense level, give or take for aggravating or mitigating factors, a judge may extend a sentence. That means a judge can sentence someone to a prison term longer than those assigned at each grade level. First, second, or third degree criminal penalties are subject to extended sentences when the offender is a repeat offender, meaning they have two prior convictions for two separate crimes or the second conviction involving using or possessing a firearm.

Other reasons for an extended sentence include career criminals, those who commit crimes to make a living. They may be part of a larger criminal circle or lone actors or accept money to commit crimes. Another circumstance warranting an extended sentence includes crimes committed using violence or threatening violence against a minor victim 16 years or younger. Then certain crimes have extended prison terms attached to them, like murder, which is a first degree crime with a sentence that extends from 35 years to life. Other crimes, like aggravated sexual assault, manslaughter, and kidnapping, have lengthier sentences when committed against a minor under 16.

Generally, extended sentences extend first degree crimes from a maximum of 20 years to 20 years to life, a second degree crime from a maximum of 10 years to 10 to 20, and third degree crimes from three to five years to five to ten.

What Crimes Have Mandatory Minimum Sentences in New Jersey?

Mandatory minimum prison terms are part of sentencing. A Judge may sentence a defendant to 10 years in prison with a mandatory minimum prison term of five years, meaning the inmate must serve five years before becoming eligible for parole and early release. For instance, distributing illegal drugs by a school carries a mandatory minimum sentence, as do criminal offenses with a firearm or multiple sex offenses.

Gun offenses fall under the Graves Act, which mandates that a convicted defendant serves one-half to one-third of their sentence or 42 months before early release on parole. Though tough to get approved by the prosecutor, there are exceptions to the Graves Act minimums based on mitigating factors. An experienced criminal defense attorney can make a case for an exception to the Graves Act minimums or any mandatory minimum sentence codified by law or discretionary by the judge for aggravating factors.

Contact Criminal Sentencing Defense Lawyers in Evesham NJ

At Proetta, Oliver, & Fay, our skilled criminal defense attorneys know the intricate in’s and out’s of the sentencing guidelines and will look for mitigating circumstances to reduce a potential sentence for our clients. We fully understand and use the various criminal statutes that intersect to arrive at a sentence to persuade judges, prosecutors, and probation offices to allow for more favorable sentences when defending clients charged with a wide range of criminal offenses, including heroin possession, endangering the welfare of a child, theft by deception, simple assault, aggravated assault, and many others.

If you find yourself arrested and facing criminal charges in Burlington County, such as Evesham, Bordentown, Burlington Township, Florence, Delran, Cinnaminson, Willingboro, Mount Holly, and Mount Laurel, contact a criminal defense lawyer at our office for a free consultation. Once you relate your story about what happened, we can discuss your sentencing potential, alternatives to a conviction, possible options to reduce the sentence you face, as well as defenses that may still be on the table. No matter what, we assess all of the evidence, facts of the case, and your individual options based on unique factors, and work to achieve the best result we can.

Contact Us

Our phones are answered 24 hours a day. We are available weekdays during business hours. We also meet with clients on evenings and weekends by request. We have four office locations conveniently located in Jersey City, Edison, Middletown, Cranford, Burlington, and Hamilton. All major credit cards are accepted.

Burlington Office

525 Highway 73,
Suite 104, Marlton,
New Jersey 08053
Phone: 609-850-8284
By Appointment Only

Hamilton Office

100 Horizon Center
Boulevard, Hamilton,
New Jersey, 08691
By Appointment Only

Point Pleasant Office

3828 River Road,
Suite A, Point Pleasant,
New Jersey 08742
By Appointment Only

Middletown Office

180 Kings Highway,
Middletown Township,
New Jersey 07748
By Appointment Only