MORRISTOWN, NJ (Morris County) – In recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, members of the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office participated in a virtual forum hosted by the Martin Luther King Observance Committee titled: “Criminal Justice: Paths to Reform and Redirection.”
The panel was conducted on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, and broadcast at the 53rd Annual MLK Day Celebration on Jan. 16 at Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown.
Morris County Prosecutor Robert J. Carroll, Sheriff James Gannon, First Assistant Prosecutor Maggie Calderwood, and MCPO Sgt. Patrick LaGuerre joined the panel, hosted by Rev. Herman Scott, Chaplain of the Morris County Jail and Criminal Justice Chair of the Morris County NAACP Branch.
To view the entire virtual panel discussion, click here and use passcode: Phu3+tn3.
Topics included diversionary programs and the justice system, law enforcement training, and community engagement.
When it comes to how officers interact with the public, Prosecutor Carroll explained the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office implemented a quarterly Crisis Intervention Training for Morris County officers, EMS, and other first responders.
“We teach them the ability, when they come upon a situation, to recognize it for what it is – is the person under mental distress at the time, or do they have criminal intent? The ability to discern the difference between the two is where the training comes into play,” Carroll said.
Prosecutor Carroll recalled when he first joined the office in October 2020, he initiated a blind study of 150 Morris County cases to determine if disparities resulted from any prosecutorial discretion or minimum sentencing state statutes. The intra-office study removed names, races and other identifying factors from the sample cases. The study found what determines custodial detention is largely contingent on a person’s criminal history.
Through educational and Juvenile Justice Reform divisionary programs, such as Stationhouse Adjustments and Curbside Warnings, Prosecutor Carroll said the goal is to reduce the number of young people entering into the justice system.
“If you have a situation with a juvenile involved in misconduct, maybe we bring in their church or faith leader, or maybe we bring in their parents. They are not injected into the criminal justice system at such an early age, and are given another opportunity. At the same time, they are taught ‘this is wrong.’ These types of adjustments have led to a dramatic drop in the number of juveniles processed. For example, in 2019, there were 409 juvenile cases. Through 2022, 130 cases,” Carroll said.
Sheriff Gannon noted a focus in recent years on de-escalation training and techniques for encounters with those undergoing mental health crisis.
“It’s not just the training. It’s the commentary and discussion amongst the group being trained. And that’s how you get better – when you look through the lens of other folks, and truly see people. We need to see people, empathize, and sometimes, apologize. We also have a speak-up culture here in Morris County law enforcement. I feel very confident that our checks and balances would preclude people from taking racist action towards people because of the culture that has developed here,” Gannon said.
First Assistant Prosecutor Calderwood noted unconscious bias training is also mandated of assistant prosecutors, as well as law enforcement officers.
“We as a society have gotten better at seeing racism, and in turn, law enforcement has gotten better,” Calderwood said. “The more compassionate you are in everything, even if its law enforcement and prosecution, as Prosecutor Carroll said, that is the direction we are going. That doesn’t mean we don’t do our job as law enforcement officers and prosecutors in protecting the community from violent offenders and doing what we have to do to seek justice. We have many different ways of seeking justice.”
Prosecutor Carroll and Sheriff Gannon explained divisionary programs for adults can offer mental health and substance use treatments instead of incarceration, while enforcement is focused on narcotics distributors.
“In the last few years, we’ve had over a thousand people go into programs. That person with the broken needle in their pocket and an empty bag of dope – I don’t know if they’re well served going into the jail instead of a program. I’d rather see them go into a program. We’re big on enforcement – the for-profit opioid dealers and organizations. We like putting them away because they’re killing our people,” Gannon said.
Sheriff Gannon stressed reentry programs at the MCCF provide job and social services resources, which are vital considering the average length of incarceration pre-trial for a defendant was 6.8 days in 2022. The Morris County Sheriff’s Office manages the Morris County Correctional Facility (MCCF), which incarcerates pre-trial defendants in accordance with criminal justice reform and defendants who are sentenced to the facility upon conviction. Other defendants who are convicted of crimes can either be sentenced to non-custodial probation or New Jersey State Prison.
“Hope Hub is very unique because it assists people at an acutely elevated risk, commonly, a person we believe is going to have a fatal overdose or is going to commit suicide. We’ve partnered with 50 service providers that can get things done within the community and with nonprofits. Talking to the medical staff and officers on the [MCCF] floor, north of three-quarters of the people in the correctional facility are there for their addiction. So, let’s deal with that addiction,” Gannon said.”
Prosecutor Carroll added the MCPO has a duty to listen to victims, to strike a balance between protecting the community and giving a defendant fair treatment.
The MCPO weighs how the community is best served when evaluating cases, said First Assistant Prosecutor Calderwood, which could mean not pursuing incarceration for a defendant in order for them to keep their job or care for their children. This is accomplished through Recovery Court, the Mental Health and Veterans Divisionary Program, Pre-Trial Intervention and other pleas.
“We don’t have to look for jail as a resolution for every single case,” Calderwood said.
The Morris County officials noted this approach includes prevention and education.
The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office conducts bias and bullying seminars at area schools and houses of worship to empower citizens to report such incidents, said Sgt. LaGuerre. The MCPO utilizes an open-door policy with civic organizations to address community concerns and to foster mutual understanding.
“Community policing is a two-way street – it takes the community, and it takes the police officers. Once the kids come to know the community officers on the beat or resources officers in the schools, and gain a relationship with them, if something happens, that officer knows that child or knows that family, and they can do a curbside adjustment right away. Those relationships work,” LaGuerre said.
Prosecutor Carroll praised the teamwork exhibited by the MCSO, local police departments and civic and professional organizations, who have a collective objective of improving the Morris community and its justice system.