Sometime later this week or early next week, Bergen and Mercer counties will convene virtual grand jury proceedings in a pilot program devised by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

The level of success of these operations will determine whether the state can leverage its "extraordinary technological infrastructure," in the words of state Courts Administrator Glenn Grant, to replicate even a small portion of the typical court system format.

Getting the framework right, Grant said, is important.

"While this tool is not a broad-based solution, it is an idea to say that we can come up with an additional strategy to try to get our criminal cases moving," he said. "Both of those prosecutors were willing to try to give the Judiciary and their colleagues an assessment of whether this program can work."

Currently, Grant said, more than 1,500 criminal defendants are awaiting indictment across the Garden State and broadening access to virtual grand juries would allow those defendants, as well as prosecutors, to get some forward motion.

Criminal cases, trials and grand juries were suspended as part of the state's shutdown orders due to COVID-19. With that in mind, Grant said courts are trying to balance the health and safety concerns of one of the pandemic's hardest-hit states with the need to resume proceedings even if they are far from normal.

"This is a program that starts with the consent of the defendant and it's really looking at, at this particular stage, low-level offenses, and in general that's going to be a one-witness person," Grant said.

Whether or not the virtual grand jury concept spreads to other counties or even the state level, Grant said it's only an interim fix until in-person appearances can be allowed again.

"We really long for the day when we can get back into our buildings and operate in that normal manner. I don't, at this particular juncture, foresee it as a permanent solution," he said.

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