Interviewer: Is PTI only for indictable third‑ and fourth‑degree offenses, or can it also be for a disorderly persons offense?
Lauren Scardella: PTI is only for indictable offenses in Superior Court, but there are two programs in municipal court for disorderly and petty disorderly persons offenses.
Interviewer: So the other two programs are just for disorderly persons offenses, which are similar to misdemeanors in other states. What are the other programs available to these kinds of people?
Lauren Scardella: There are two programs. One of them is called a Conditional Discharge, and that is only for drug offenses. Only recently – as of January 4, 2014 –a new program has come into existence in municipal courts called the Conditional Dismissal Program. That’s for disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons offenses that are not drug‑related.
In the Conditional Dismissal Program, the prosecutor really has to look into the case a lot more and do a lot more work than he or she does on a Conditional Discharge, because any defendant who is a first‑time offender with a drug charge is entitled to a conditional discharge, and there’s no looking into it any further once the judge determines that the defendant has not had any prior drug convictions or first-offender programs. The Conditional Dismissal Program is more like PTI, where there’s an application process and the prosecutor has to look at the facts and circumstances surrounding the case and decide whether or not they think it’s a good fit.
Interviewer: What are the differences between the results of the two programs?
Lauren Scardella: For a Conditional Discharge, it’s usually an unsupervised probation for a period of a year, and the conditions are usually that the defendant not be convicted of any violations of the criminal code. As long as they are not convicted of any new offenses and they pay all the costs and assessments, which total just over $800, then at the end of a year their charges are dismissed. Six months after the charges are dismissed, they can get the arrest record expunged.
The Conditional Dismissal Program is a little bit different. First of all, the person has to plead guilty, which is something that’s different from both PTI and Conditional Discharge. With the Conditional Dismissal Program, they have to plead guilty. They have to pay an application fee. They get put on a period of probation, usually for a year – generally the same types of terms and conditions as a Conditional Discharge – but they can be asked to pay an assessment that can be up to the maximum amount of a fine that they’d be eligible for if they were convicted under that statute. For a disorderly persons offense, that’s a maximum fine of $1,000, and for a petty disorderly persons offense there’s a maximum fine of $500.
As long as they comply with the terms of the probation, the result is the same, that at the end of it the judge signs an order dismissing the charges, and six months later they’re eligible to have the arrest record expunged.
Interviewer: It sounds worse. You have to plead guilty. The other ones, you don’t.
Lauren Scardella: I think what the legislature was trying to do was to make it less cumbersome on the courts, and to not make it something where defendants walk in and go, “Oh, I can have this program? Okay, I’m just going to do that. I don’t want to have my case evaluated or look at it or anything. I’m just going to do this and be done with it.” If the person violates their probation, they’ve already pled guilty, and it converts into a conviction.
Interviewer: Is this going to replace the conditional discharge program, or is it going to sit alongside of it?
Lauren Scardella: No, it’s going to sit alongside of it. For a long time the conditional discharge program was the only thing that was available in municipal court, and there was a strong feeling that that really wasn’t fair because on a lot of the offenses that weren’t drug related, like say for a shoplifting case, if the person was accused of stealing under $200 worth of merchandise, it’s a disorderly persons offense, and there was no diversionary program available. Yet if it was more than $200, it would be in Superior Court and they would be eligible for PTI.
That really wasn’t fair, because had the person done something worse, they could get PTI in Superior Court, but because it wasn’t as serious and it was in municipal court, they couldn’t have the benefit of a diversionary program. So, even though you have to plead guilty with the Conditional Dismissal Program, you are still getting a huge benefit just by virtue of the existence of the program.