On August 8, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of State v. A.T.C. The principal issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2, concerned the constitutionality of the mandatory sentencing provisions of the Jessica Lunsford Act.
Justice Patterson wrote for a unanimous Court and held in relevant part: The JLA Guidelines that govern plea bargaining satisfy Lagares, Vasquez, and Brimage, with one necessary addition: a requirement that prosecutors provide a statement of reasons for a decision to offer a plea bargain in which the term of incarceration or period of parole ineligibility is less than that prescribed in N.J.S.A. 2c:14-2(a).
The Guidelines properly apply to all county prosecutors and to the Division of Criminal Justice when it handles a JLA case; they do not authorize prosecutors’ offices to develop county-specific standards and procedures, as did the Guidelines rejected in Brimage. They provide clear and practical guidance for prosecutors charged with making plea-bargaining determinations. Moreover, the victim-centered factors identified in section 1 of the JLA Guidelines reflect the Legislature’s focus on “the interests of the victim” in N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(d). They are consonant with legislative intent.
The JLA Guidelines should be amended to instruct prosecutors to provide the sentencing court with a statement of reasons for a decision to offer a defendant, in a plea agreement, a term of incarceration or a term of parole ineligibility between fifteen and twenty-five years. Such a statement is essential to effective judicial review for the arbitrary and capricious exercise of prosecutorial discretion.
We recognize that in the JLA setting, the statement of reasons may implicate mental and physical health records and other confidential information regarding the victim and members of the victim’s immediate family. See JLA Guidelines § 1 (a)-(f) (identifying factors that may relate to the mental and physical health of the victim or members of his or her immediate family). In the statement of reasons, the prosecutor ordinarily need not disclose confidential, sensitive information about the victim or members of his or her immediate family including, for example, information relating to mental or physical health; a general representation as to the potential impact of a trial should provide the court with an adequate basis for judicial review. In the event that a prosecutor concludes that it is necessary in a given case to reveal such confidential information in a statement of reasons, the court should hold an in camera hearing to consider that information. See Pressler & Verniero, Current N.J. Court Rules, cmts. 2.1.3 and 2.2 on R. 1:2-1 (2019).
A statement of reasons is also required when a prosecutor reject an applicant from the PTI diversionary program. Like in the PTI setting, prosecutors are given a great deal of discretion and can almost always have their decision affirmed on appeal if they research relevant precedent and apply it to their statement of reasons.