A package of bills that aim to overhaul how sexual assault and sexual harassment cases are investigated and prosecuted in New Jersey is headed to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.
The Assembly unanimously passed seven bills on March 1—all of which were already approved by the State Senate in December —that seek to provide victims more rights in the criminal justice system and improve how cases involving sexual assault are handled.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), the prime sponsor of each bill in the package, said, “We often stress the importance of believing survivors, but supporting and hearing them.”
“These measures will create space for survivors to speak their truth to receive the support and respect they rightfully deserve. This package is about ensuring that our avenues to justice are safe and fair for survivors when they decide to seek recourse and justice,” she said.
What Was Approved
- S3070/A4884 – 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.”
- S3071/A4885 – 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.
- S3072/A4886 – 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.
- S3073/A4887- 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.
- S3074/A4888 – 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.
- S3075/A4889 – 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.
- S3076/A4890 – Requires training for county prosecutors and assistant prosecutors every three years on how to handle, investigate and respond to reports of sexual assault
Making A ‘Complicated’ Process ‘A Little Easier’
Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-7) said the bills strive to make the “very stressful and complicated process” of reporting a sexual assault and pursuing a case “a little easier” by “arming survivors with information” on how to obtain case updates and how to access mental health and advocacy resources.
Finding ways to make the whole process “more accommodating” for victims may make it easier for them to come forward “and hopefully begin to bring more perpetrators to justice,” Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-34) said.
Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-39) believes requiring the state attorney general to conduct an audit on how many cases of sexual assault and criminal sexual contact occur each year “will inform reforms that will better serve women going forward.”
“To correct the shortcomings of our criminal justice system, we need more transparency to understand exactly where we are failing victims of sexual assault. We don’t have accurate statistics for sexual assault cases in New Jersey, because we lack the information that this report will provide,” she said.
Sexual Violence Is ‘Far Too Prevalent’
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.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), the package’s sponsor, has said the “long overdue” reforms were proposed in response to sexual assault victims who claim their allegations were not properly investigated by authorities.
“Sexual violence is unfortunately far too prevalent in our society, affecting at least one in every five women and one in 71 men,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-31). “With so many survivors in our state, we must make sure we provide them with the support they need to recover from their experience and take control of their lives.”