A package of bills that proposes an overhaul of how New Jersey investigates and prosecutes cases involving sexual assault and sexual harassment is advancing in Trenton.
The State Senate passed several bills on Dec. 18 seeking to protect victims’ rights, improve law enforcement, judicial case management and codify state government policies for harassment and discrimination.
The reforms have been described by Democratic State Senator Loretta Weinberg as “long overdue.” Weinberg, the package’s sponsor, said the bills were proposed in response to sexual assault victims who claim their allegations were not properly investigated by authorities.
What Was Approved
“Far too often, survivors of sexual assault who have the courage to come forward are victimized a second time,” said Weinberg (D-37). “These bills aim to remedy the pitfalls in our criminal justice system and workplaces that allow violence and misogyny to continue.”
The proposed measures 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.
- S-3070 – 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.”
- S-3071 – 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.
- S-3072– 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.
- S-3073 – 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.
- S-3074 – 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.
- S-3075– Establishes sexual violence liaison officers with specialized training in the Division of 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.
- S-3076 – Requires training for county prosecutors and assistant prosecutors every three years on how to handle, investigate and respond to reports of sexual assault.
- S-3078– Codifies into law the State Workplace Anti-Harassment and Discrimination Policy, including training requirements, reporting requirements for supervisors, and standards for investigation.
Lawmakers said the package of bills 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. Weinberg, along with State Senator Kristin Corrado (R-40), served as vice chair and chair, respectively, on that committee.
Corrado, who went on to co-sponsor S-3073 with Weinberg, called Brennan’s testimony “brave” and said her “story of sexual assault and the frustrating manner in which she learned that criminal charges would not be brought” inspired reform.
System Fails Victims
The series of bills that moved forward are part of several reforms proposed earlier this year by Brennan 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.
In a social media post, Weinberg said she was “so proud of this effort” and thanked “the women who came forth to support these bills,” offering “a heartfelt thanks to all those brave women (and a couple of men) who came forth and shared their stories.”
“So many people contributed. But this is one of those issues when you can never say ‘our work is done’,” Weinberg said.
Assembly Action Awaits
“During both public and private hearings, victims of sexual assault shared their concerns that our criminal justice system failed to meet their needs,” added Corrado. “This legislation is recognition that they shouldn’t be treated as little more than witnesses to a crime, but as survivors who deserve to be heard and treated more respectfully by prosecutors.”
Accompanying bills were introduced into the state Assembly by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37) on Oct. 26 and referred to the Judiciary Committee.
“These are complex issues we are grappling with,” Senator Weinberg acknowledged. “It is no understatement to say that I and others in this Legislature—including the many women senators who are serving as the co-prime sponsors of these bills—have spent years trying to address the plague of sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination. We are hopeful these bills will meaningfully improve outcomes for sexual assault survivors.”