A nine-bill package that proposes to improve how New Jersey investigates and prosecutes cases involving sexual assault and sexual harassment is being considered by the state Legislature.
Introduced Oct. 22 by State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), the measures seek to protect victims’ rights, improve law enforcement and judicial case management and codify state government policies for sexual harassment and discrimination.
‘Long Overdue’ Measures
The reforms, which Weinberg described as “long overdue,” were proposed in response to sexual assault victims who claim their allegations were not properly investigated by authorities.
“Survivors of sexual assault who are brave enough to seek redress through the legal system need to know that prosecutors and police will respect their rights, that trained sexual violence liaison officers will be there to listen and that they will receive the support services they need,” Weinberg said.
Vainieri Huttle added, “When someone comes forward with their story of trauma, they are staking their faith in a judicial system that survivors say too often fails them.”
“Enough is enough. We constantly hear from survivors that their complaints were mishandled, many survivors are re-traumatized by the process. Sexual assault survivors deserve our support for their strength and resolve, they deserve a system that works to bring them justice, not one that works to tear them down,” she said.
The proposed changes include requiring trainings for prosecutors on handling sexual assault cases, allowing victims to review police reports regarding their assaults prior to filing and mandating the state attorney general to conduct audits of sexual assault cases and then reporting the data to legislators.
The full package consists of:
- Establishes a three-year “Sexual Violence Restorative Justice Pilot Program” to bring survivors and their abusers together to “seek collective healing solutions outside the judicial system.”
- Requires law enforcement authorities to provide victims the police report on their complaint and provide them with the option to review the police report before it is filed and state whether they agree or disagree with it.
- Requires the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy and the county prosecutor’s office to share an information packet with victims of sexual assault explaining their rights and relevant laws, the criminal justice process, available counseling and other services, phone numbers for updates on their case, and contact information for both the prosecutor and the Office of Victim-Witness Advocacy.
- Establishes the right of victims to be notified of decisions by county prosecutors on whether to file charges prior to notifying the alleged perpetrator, and providing victims with the opportunity to consult with prosecutors before any plea deal negotiations are concluded.
- Requires the state attorney general to audit sexual assault cases and issue an annual report to the governor and legislature, including statistics on reports/complaints filed by victims, referrals to county prosecutors, cases declined to be prosecuted, indictments or charges, downgrading of charges, plea agreements and police reports.
- Establishes sexual violence liaison officers with specialized training in the State Police and local police departments to serve as the in-house expert and primary point of contact on sexual violence cases, provide training to other officers, and monitor station compliance with the law and other directives.
- Requires training for county prosecutors and assistant prosecutors every three years on how to handle, investigate and respond to reports of sexual assault.
- Codifies into law and revise the state legislature’s anti-harassment policy, including training requirements, reporting requirements for supervisors, and standards for investigation and disposition of complaints.
- Codifies into law the State Workplace Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Policy, including training requirements, reporting requirements for supervisors, and standards for investigation.
Weinberg and Vainieri Huttle said they incorporated recommendations from Katie Brennan, a former volunteer for Gov. Phil Murphy’s election campaign and current chief of staff for the state’s Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.
Brennan alleged that Al Alvarez, another Murphy campaign staffer and former Schools Development Authority chief of staff, sexually assaulted her. After months of legislative hearings, prosecutors declined to charge Alvarez.
Earlier this year, Brennan proposed several reforms to the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics, a group created by Weinberg to find ways to improve the “toxic” culture for women in government and politics.
“We learned all too well from Katie Brennan’s experience where the gaps are in the system and how poorly so many survivors are treated,” said Weinberg, who believes the proposed reforms “will make a real difference in the lives of victims of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination.”
More Must Be Done
Vainieri Huttle called the bills “meaningful steps to make changes,” but believes the state needs “to go further to make sure the process puts survivors first.”
“Survivors must be heard and supported at all levels of the process, from law enforcement to the courts system,” she said.
Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, who worked on the legislation, said the reforms are much needed, including increased training for law enforcement and increased oversight.
Measures Praised By Brennan
“We have made significant strides in New Jersey—increasing the timeline for rape kit retention, mandating law enforcement training, and expanding our civil statute of limitations,” she said. “But, we have more to do and these bills keep moving us in the right direction.”
Brennan said she was “proud to work with the Legislature” in order to “make New Jersey a better place for survivors.”
“Restorative justice, prosecution reform, law enforcement reform, improved rights and resources for survivors—this legislation holds systems and people accountable,” she said.