This is a common question. The simple answer is this. An indictable criminal offense is a more serious offense. Sometimes these offenses are called felony offenses. In New Jersey, indictable offenses are called as such because the accused has the right to have his case presented to a grand jury. These matters are heard in the Superior Court and if trial results, it is trial by jury.
A grand jury is a panel of people who will listen to the facts that the State believes will prove your guilt and determine whether or not the state can prove its case. This is not a trial. In most cases, the accused will not be allowed to participate in the grand jury proceedings, neither will defense attorneys, although a request can be made. Basically, the state can present its best case, uncontested by the defense. If the panel decides that the state “has a case”, an indictment will be handed down. If the grand jury does not think that the state has a case, then the matter will be “no billed”, and the charges will be either dismissed or downgraded to a less serious offense.
In many cases, an indictable offense won’t ever get to the grand jury. The criminal justice system promotes plea bargaining. This means that there will be an opportunity to resolve the matter prior to indictment. In almost all cases, the best plea offer is given prior to indictment. If the defendant turns down that pre-indictment plea offer, and the case is indicted, then the next offer will typically be much worse. If a defendant pleads guilty prior to indictment by way of plea bargain, then this is called pleading to the accusation. If the defendant rejects the pre-indictment plea offer and the post indictment plea offer, then the case will go to trial.
Less serious offenses are called disorderly persons offenses. Disorderly persons offenses are similar to misdemeanors and encompass a wide array of quasi criminal offenses such as shoplifting (under 200), simple assault, disorderly conduct, obstruction of justice, etc. There is no right to a grand jury with disorderly persons offenses, there are no jury trials with DP or disorderly persons offenses. The judge is the judge and jury. If convicted of a DP, it will appear on a criminal record, you can face jail time, heavy fines, and loss of license.
Disorderly persons offense are heard in the municipal court. With these type of charges, as with indictable offenses, their will typically be multiple court appearances. It is very rare that these matters are resolved with one or even two court appearances.
The foregoing is provided to give a VERY basic structure. It is wise to contact a lawyer when charged with any criminal offense in New Jersey.