In New Jersey, crimes are not categorized as felonies and misdemeanors but as indictable offenses, disorderly persons offenses, and petty disorderly persons offenses.
Indictable (in-DITE-able) crimes in New Jersey are most similar to other states' felonies, which generally carry the possibility of more than one year's incarceration. In some cases, lower-level indictable crimes carry penalties similar to some states' misdemeanors. Disorderly persons offenses closely resemble misdemeanors and infractions in other states.
This article will focus on indictable offenses. To learn more about disorderly persons offenses, check out our article: New Jersey Disorderly Persons Offenses by Class and Sentences.
New Jersey classifies indictable offenses by degrees, with first-degree crimes being the most serious and fourth-degree being the least serious. Charges for indictable crimes must be presented to a grand jury. A grand jury reviews the prosecutor's evidence to determine whether the evidence supports formal charges. If the grand jury votes to indict (in-DITE), the accused (now defendant) faces criminal charges for the crime. (A grand jury should not be confused with a petit jury, which decides issues of guilt and renders a verdict.)
Once indicted, an offender faces a potential trial for the alleged criminal charges. Most offenders end up agreeing to a plea deal, while others go to trial and a judge or petit jury decides their guilt. If convicted, the guilty offender then moves on to the sentencing stage. Judges hand down sentences (not juries).
Sentencing in New Jersey involves several factors. Statutes specify the penalties available for an offense, as well as guidelines for sentencing. In addition to incarceration, the judge can order the offender to pay fines, fees, and restitution (compensation to the victim).
Below are the possible penalties and examples of offenses for each crime classification. The "presumptive" sentence represents the standard sentence to be imposed. As you'll see in the next section, though, judges must consider a range of factors before determining the final sentence.
Fourth-degree crimes carry a sentence of up to 18 months' imprisonment, with a 9-month presumptive sentence. Examples include forgery, cyber harassment, and criminal mischief.
Third-degree crimes carry a sentence of 3 to 5 years' imprisonment, with a 4-year presumptive sentence. Examples include aggravated criminal sexual contact, arson, and motor vehicle theft.
Second-degree crimes carry a sentence of 5 to 10 years' imprisonment, with a 7-year presumptive sentence. Examples include aggravated arson, armed burglary, and reckless vehicular homicide.
First-degree crimes carry a sentence of 10 to 20 years' imprisonment, with a 15-year presumptive sentence. Examples include armed robbery, aggravated sexual assault, and aggravated manslaughter.
Certain first-degree crimes, such as murder, human trafficking, and carjacking, carry enhanced sentence terms longer than the 20-year maximum for most first-degree crimes. These crimes indicate a specific penalty in statute, such as 10 to 30 years' imprisonment or 30 years to life without parole. Additional examples of these enhanced first-degree crimes include sexual assault of a child under 13, terrorism, and kidnapping.
(N.J. Stat. §§ 2C:11-3, :13-1, :14-2, :43-6 (2022).)
Most offenders will be sentenced to a fixed incarceration term, depending on the degree of the convicted crime. For instance, a judge might sentence an offender to a 15-year prison term for a first-degree crime or a 9-month jail term for a fourth-degree crime.
When deciding on what sentence is appropriate, the judge must order the presumptive sentence unless aggravating or mitigating circumstances support a higher or lower sentence. However, the judge cannot go above the maximum set in law (for instance, 5 years for third-degree crimes).
Aggravating circumstances support a higher penalty, such as the crime resulted in serious harm to the victim, the defendant knew the victim was elderly, or the defendant has a record of prior convictions. Mitigating circumstances, on the other hand, tend to show a lesser punishment may be appropriate, such as the defendant's young age, willingness to cooperate with law enforcement, participate in programming, or compensate the victim for harm done.
Not all convicted defendants end up behind bars. Depending on the degree and circumstances of the crime, New Jersey's law establishes a presumption of imprisonment or probation for certain offenses. Like the presumptive penalty above, the presumption of imprisonment or probation represents the standard disposition to be applied in a case. A judge can disregard the presumption set in law only in cases where a need to protect public safety exists or a serious injustice would result otherwise. In cases where no presumption exists, the decision rests with the judge.
Imprisonment. Offenders convicted of a first- or second-degree crime face the presumption that they will go directly to prison, as do those convicted of a third-degree crime involving certain domestic violence or organized crimes.
Probation. The presumptive disposition for most first-time offenders convicted of a third- or fourth-degree crime is probation (certain exceptions exist). Probation allows defendants to serve all or most of their sentences in the community. When ordering probation, the judge suspends the imprisonment part of the sentence. This suspension is conditioned on the offender successfully following and completing all the terms of probation. Generally, terms include remaining crime-free, attending counseling, not contacting the victim, maintaining employment or schooling, and paying restitution to the victim. A violation can mean going to jail or prison to serve the original sentence.
New Jersey statutes also provide extended terms of imprisonment for repeat offenders deemed to be persistent offenders, professional criminals, or hired criminals. These extended terms can be mandatory or discretionary. The length of the extended-term varies based on the degree of the crime. For instance, a fourth-degree crime carries an extended term of 3 to 5 years versus the standard term of zero to 18 months' imprisonment.
(N.J. Stat. §§ 2C:43-6, 2C:43-7.1, 2C:43-7.2, 2C:44-1, 2C:44-3 (2022).)
Like most states, New Jersey sets a time limit in law for filing a criminal case—called a statute of limitations. A few crimes, like murder, manslaughter, and sexual assault, can be charged at any time after the crime was committed. But, for most indictable offenses, an indictment must be found within five to seven years of the commission of the crime. You can learn more in our article on New Jersey Criminal Statute of Limitations.
A conviction for an indictable crime in New Jersey becomes part of your criminal record. If you are convicted later of another indictable offense, the court can consider your prior conviction and impose a harsher sentence in the new case. Being a convicted felon can hurt you when you are looking for a job or housing. Convicted felons may also lose the right to vote, carry firearms, and obtain certain professional licenses.
Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney if you face charges for an indictable offense. A lawyer can explore dismissal and plea options or represent you at trial. A local attorney will know the criminal justice players (local judges and prosecutors), which can be to your advantage. An attorney can also help you with matters relating to expunging convictions.