What do the game show Let's Make a Deal and West Deptford's municipal court have in common?
Entirely too much, according to one Libertarian watchdog.
West Deptford’s is raking in money by giving defendants the opportunity to bargain their crimes down to ordinance violations in exchange for steep fines, in violation of a 1998 directive from then-Attorney General Peter Verniero that effectively banned the process, according to John Paff, chair of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Task Force.
“They can't play with justice like this,” Paff said. “Money shouldn't be the grease in the wheels of justice.”
And to make matters worse, Paff said, West Deptford Prosecutor Kelly Conroy's municipal ordinance of choice for those downgraded charges is a vaguely worded nuisance ordinance, an identical version of which was ruled unconstitutional by a state appellate court in 1996—before the ordinance was actually passed in West Deptford, according to the township’s code.
Given the municipal court has downgraded everything from receiving stolen property to defiant trespass to hindering apprehension, it comes down to a question of what the municipal court’s purpose is, he said.
“Are they intended to dispense substantial justice...or are they intended to be sources of money?” Paff said.
One of his biggest concerns is with violent offenders who get their charges downgraded in this way, Paff said, given municipal ordinance offenses don't show up, as criminal convictions do, in other courts, meaning repeat offenders could be treated as first-timers, avoiding jail time despite multiple offenses.
“It completely defeats the concept of progressive punishment,” Paff said.
Pressure on courts to either clear the caseload—West Deptford's court meets just once a week, generally—or bring in money—West Deptford’s court took in just under $363,000 in 2010, according to the municipal budget—means taking shortcuts like these downgrades to avoid trials, which could add police overtime and additional court costs, Paff said.
“Courts aren't necessarily supposed to be a profit center,” he said. “Justice sometimes costs money to impose.”
But something needs to be done to resolve the disconnect between what the state Attorney General has said and what’s being done at the local level—perhaps by appealing to the state legislature for more help in dealing with crime on the municipal level, Paff said, rather than just throwing the system under the bus in the interest of expediency.
“This is just nonsense—this isn't justice,” he said. “They need to adopt a policy where they don't do this any more.”
West Deptford isn’t the only town Paff has seen this happen, either. He’s approached prosecutors in Cumberland, Burlington, Bergen and Somerset counties, among others, and gotten a response from some—Burlington and Somerset both sent out letters stopping the process there—while others have ignored him.
“It's easier for everyone to ignore it,” Paff said. “It's a nice, cozy little system.”
What will happen in West Deptford is now up to the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, which told Paff the situation’s being addressed.
“We will be reaching out to (Conroy) regarding the concerns you have raised regarding the use of this local ordinance in light of the AG policy on this issue,” Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean F. Dalton wrote Paff in an email.
Township officials said they’re waiting on the call from the county office on what should be done.
"We'll see what action needs to be taken, if any," township administrator Eric Campo said.
The township reviews ordinances from time to time, Campo said, but that usually happens in the context of a court decision.
As for what the municipal prosecutor does, Campo said there’s a firewall between the township government and the court.
"There's very clear rules there," Campo said. “It would just not come into this side of the building.”