When a New Jersey criminal case results in a guilty plea or conviction, that is not the end of the story. The case then proceeds to a sentencing phase. The sentencing phase typically involves an investigation and report to help the judge determine the most appropriate punishment for the defendant, and then a sentencing hearing at which the judge will hand down a sentence. A lot happens during pre-sentencing and sentencing, and there are a number of different types of sentences that a judge can impose at the sentencing hearing. A leading question among criminal defendants is: what is the effect of a plea agreement on sentencing? And what are the different types of sentences that a judge can issue? For answers to these questions, and to learn more about sentencing in NJ criminal cases, keep reading.
Rules About Plea Agreements
Although there is technically no constitutional right to plea bargain, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that plea bargaining is very important for criminal justice. With that in mind, Rule 3:9-3(a) of the Rules Governing the Courts of the State of New Jersey specifically authorizes prosecutors and defendants to converse about pleas and sentences. The idea behind allowing the state to discuss plea deals with defendants is that pre-trial plea agreements can speed things up, ensure that cases are resolved in an equitable manner, and help to clear cases from the court docket.
Once a tentative plea agreement has been reached, the prosecution may reveal the terms of the agreement to the court, as authorized by Rule 3:9-3(c). The reason for this disclosure is so that the court can evaluate the plea deal and then let the prosecution know whether the court will sign off on it. If there is no tentative plea agreement, the court may inform the defendant of the maximum sentence that may result from a guilty plea. The general idea behind these authorized discussions with the court in advance of trial is that the parties should be fully informed and in the best possible position to make a decision about whether to proceed to trial.
When a Plea Deal Can Be Reached
There are strict rules about when a plea agreement may be reached. According to Rule 3:9-3(g), a court may not accept a plea agreement once a trial date has been scheduled. However, there may be an exception to this cutoff if the judge decides that the plea should be approved if there has been a significant change in the circumstances of the case, or if not allowing a plea deal would result in an injustice. This gives the court some degree of flexibility to get around the deadline for allowing a plea agreement.
What Happens After Reaching a Plea Agreement
If the prosecutor and the defendant reach a plea agreement, the deal will still need to be accepted by the court. In accordance with Rule 3:9-2, the judge will typically ask the defendant a series of questions. These questions will address the facts of the case, the fact that the defendant is entering the plea freely and voluntarily, and the defendant’s awareness of the terms and consequences of their plea bargain.
Limitations on the Prosecutor
There are certain things that the prosecutor can and cannot do when offering a plea deal to a defendant. Specifically, the prosecutor handling a criminal case:
- Can require defendant to show up for sentencing. The prosecution can require the defendant to appear at the sentencing hearing in order for the terms of the plea agreement to remain in place.
- Can include restitution to the victim. The parties in a criminal matter may reach a plea deal that calls for the defendant to provide monetary payment to the victim.
- Cannot restrict basic rights of the defendant. Regardless of the terms of any plea agreement, the prosecution is not allowed to restrict the defendant’s right to present evidence of mitigating factors, or to argue for a lesser sentence, at the sentencing hearing.
- Cannot call for illegal sentence. Even if the prosecutor and the defendant agree to a particular sentence, the court is not allowed to impose that sentence if it falls outside the statutory range and would therefore be illegal.
- Cannot restrict judicial discretion. Regardless of the existence of a plea agreement, the ultimate authority to determine what sentence to issue in will rest with the court. This means that the judge can ignore the plea agreement and hand down a different sentence.
What Are the Different Types of Sentences?
Although most criminal cases with a guilty plea or conviction involve a straightforward sentence, there are different types of sentences that may be imposed by the judge. These sentencing options include: consecutive sentences, concurrent sentences, probation, split sentences, and merger.
It is not uncommon for a defendant to be charged with multiple criminal offenses in the same case. If the defendant is ultimately convicted on more than one charge, or pleads guilty to more than one charge, then the court will have a decision to make at sentencing: should the sentences run consecutively or concurrently? When the terms of incarceration run consecutively, this means that they are added together to arrive at a single, and longer, term of incarceration. Additionally, it is important to note that some criminal charges must be imposed consecutively. The charges that require consecutive terms include the following:
- Leaving the Scene of a Motor Vehicle Accident Resulting in Death
- Kidnapping a Minor
- Witness Tampering
- Gang Criminality
- Possession of a Weapon During a Drug Crime
N.J.S.A. 2C:44-5(a) of the New Jersey criminal code allows a court to use its discretion when deciding whether to issue either consecutive or concurrent sentences. The court may rely on what are known as the “Yarbough guidelines” stipulated by the NJ Supreme Court. These guidelines call for the court to consider the facts of the case, such as whether the different crimes were disconnected from each other, whether the crimes involved distinct acts, whether the crimes were geographically and temporally connected (i.e., whether they were committed at the same time and in the same place), and whether the crimes involved more than one victim or just a single victim. If the judge decides that the terms should run concurrently, then the defendant would be sentenced to the longer term of the two. For example, if the defendant is sentenced to five years in prison on an aggravated assault charge and six months in jail on a trespassing charge, the defendant would have to serve the longer sentence of five years.
Probation allows a defendant to avoid incarceration. When the court deems it appropriate, the defendant may be sentenced to probation instead of being sentenced to jail or prison. As set forth by N.J.S.A. 2C:45-2(a), the length of a probationary sentence should be between one and five years. When a defendant is sentenced to probation in New Jersey, their probation is overseen by a probation officer. The officer may make home visits to ensure that the defendant is complying with the court’s conditions. Additionally, the defendant is typically required to get, and keep, a job while on probation, as well as providing financial support to their family. In some cases, the defendant may have to perform community service, pay restitution to compensate the victim of their crime, and undergo counseling for drug or alcohol abuse.
If the court determines that the defendant has failed to comply with the conditions of probation, the defendant could be sentenced to jail or prison in accordance with the original sentence. Moreover, if the defendant violates probation by committing a new crime, the court may sentence the defendant to more time in jail or prison.
N.J.S.A. 2C:43-2(b)(2) gives courts the authority to impose a split sentence. This is a sentence that includes both probation and either prison or jail time. The judge can sentence the defendant to up to one year in jail and require the defendant to be on probation after they have finished their jail sentence. Generally speaking, this type of sentence is still favorable for the defendant because it allows them to serve at least part of their sentence on probation rather than serving the entire sentence in jail or prison.
Merger of Crimes
The idea behind the merging of offenses is that a defendant should not be punished more than once for a single crime. When a defendant commits a crime, they often face multiple charges. If the court determines that those crimes were basically the same and stemmed from the same action, it may be possible for the offenses to be merged so that the defendant does not receive an unreasonably harsh sentence. For example, a defendant might be charged with both a crime for robbery and conspiracy to commit that same crime. These offenses may be merged under N.J.S.A. 2C:1-8(a)(1) of the New Jersey criminal code.
Jersey City Law Firm Here for Your Defense
Being charged with a crime can place a heavy burden on you, from the moment the charges are filed to the consideration of a plea deal, negotiating for a lesser sentence, trial, and sometimes, arguing for the best possible sentencing option. The criminal defense attorneys at our Jersey City law office are here to help with every aspect of your case. Contact (201) 793-8018 today for a free consultation.