A bill to establish a diversionary program for minor offenses in municipal court has won Assembly approval.
Under A-3598, passed on Monday, disorderly persons offenses would be conditionally dismissed for defendants found eligible. They would be required to serve a year of probation and pay restitution, court costs, fines and other mandatory or discretionary assessments that  accompany a conviction.
Conditional dismissal generally would be available to a defendant who has no prior convictions in any jurisdiction. Participation would be allowed only once and would foreclose eligibility for other diversionary programs.
In determining eligibility, the court would consider other factors, including the nature of the offense, the defendant’s background and the victim’s wishes.
Excluded from the program would be defendants charged with gang activity; official breach of public trust; domestic violence; offenses against the elderly, the disabled or minors; intoxicated driving; and animal cruelty.
Drug defendants also would be excluded because there is already a diversionary program for them.
Any application approved over the municipal prosecutor’s objection would be stayed for 10 days, allowing for appeal to the Superior Court.
Successful completion of the program would not be deemed a prior conviction for purposes of future offenses.
A $75 fee paid by applicants would be deposited in a judiciary fund to offset intake and monitoring costs.
Fees and other assessments could be waived or payment plans used for indigent defendants.
Lawmakers unanimously passed an earlier version of the bill last year. It sought to impose a $500 fee, with $450 directed to the municipality and the remainder to the fund. It also called for raising the $75 fee for existing diversionary programs to $350.
Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed that bill last November. He endorsed the idea but said the application fee should be $75 instead of $500.
“While the diversion program created by this legislation is forward thinking, I am not convinced that either the fees associated with it, or the fee increases proposed in the bill for existing programs, are justified,” Christie wrote.
The reintroduced legislation adopted Christie’s suggested changes.
Historically, municipal prosecutors wishing to downgrade a defendant’s charge have had only two options: dismiss the case after imposing a community service term or substitute the statutory charge with a local ordinance violation.
The latter practice has been discouraged by the state Attorney General’s Office and is prohibited by some county prosecutors, says Jon-Henry Barr, president of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association, which supports the legislation.
Defendants accused of more serious offenses actually have more options: pretrial intervention, available to first-time defendants charged with first- to fourth-degree criminal offenses in Superior Court, and the conditional discharge program, available to those charged with drug-related disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons offenses.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities also supports the bill. Lori Buckelew, the league’s legislative analyst, says the provision allowing municipal judges to assess fines and costs “addressed some of the concerns” about local revenue.
The state judiciary supports the bill, says spokeswoman Winnie Comfort.
According to fiscal estimates, the judiciary would incur an initial, one-time cost by reprogramming its computer system to accept the new fee, but the program would generate about $1.65 million annually for the fund.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak says the governor will wait to receive the bill before commenting.
Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, D-Union, the lone abstainer in Monday’s vote, did not return a reporter’s call.