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One judge to hear gun cases

In a move aimed at reducing gun violence in Camden, a judge will take charge of the majority of firearms crimes in Camden County.

TRENTON - In a step aimed at reducing gun violence in Camden City, a single judge will be taking charge of a big chunk of firearms cases in Camden County, riding herd on plea bargains and speeding cases to their conclusion.

Camden County Acting Prosecutor Joshua Ottenberg said that too many accused gun criminals go free on bail while they await their formal indictment several months after arrest. With a judge accelerating the process, more will stay behind bars, Ottenberg predicted.

"Camden is not a big town," Ottenberg said yesterday. "The word will get out fairly fast. And the word will be you're not going to get out of jail. And that will have a deterrent effect."

Superior Judge Samuel Natal of Camden County is to take on the new watchdog duties, officials said. New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram announced the pilot program yesterday as part of a plan to speed up gun cases in the county courts that handle arrests in Camden, Newark and Trenton.

"By fast-tracking serious gun cases through our courts," Milgram said in a statement, "we will send a message that if you use a gun to commit a crime, we will catch you and the penalty will be both harsh and swift."

For years, Camden residents have had to cope with the city's high crime rate - a problem so severe that residents cheered last year when it lost a national ranking as "America's most dangerous city." Even so, it only fell as far as fifth place.

This year, Camden police have been struggling with a surge in murder, as well as an overall increase in violent crime. Overall, violent crime is up in the city over last year, paced by an increase to date in murders from 32 to 40.

Camden Police Commander Arturo Venegas said yesterday that one bright spot was a fall in assaults with guns. As of Tuesday, compared with the same period in 2006, gun assaults had fallen 6 percent.

Venegas said he welcomed Natal's appointment.

"It speeds up the system," Venegas said, while letting the public know that gun violence is "serious enough for the courts, as well as us, to give these kinds of cases special attention."

Under the plan, Natal is to oversee up to 250 arrests yearly, a large share of all gun crime in Camden County. He, as well as his counterparts in Essex and Mercer Counties, is to preside over arrests for gunpoint robberies, assaults and kidnappings, as well as the charge of possession of a gun for an unlawful purpose.

Under the new program, Natal will preside over the cases until suspects are indicted, a process that now takes up to four months. Natal will aim to shorten that process.

In his new role, he will rule on plea bargains, suppression hearings over the legality of evidence, and bail motions. He will also write monthly reports.

Jerry H. Radcliffe, a Temple University criminologist who has been serving as a consultant to the Camden police, said a focus on illegal gun possession made sense.

"Gun crime is pervasive in much of the city. It's good that the attorney general is sending a signal that gun crime is taken seriously," Radcliffe said.

"In many places with high gun-crime problems, gun-crime cases involving possession are not taken as seriously and are not prosecuted as seriously as they might be because of the sheer volume," Radcliffe said.