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Explainer: Crime Victims in New Jersey Have Strong Legal Protections

Far-reaching legislation and a constitutional amendment guarantee array of rights and provide support during criminal-justice process

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When someone is assaulted, robbed, raped or murdered, victims and their families can feel victimized again if they receive poor treatment from the criminal justice system.

New Jersey has a number of provisions in place that try to prevent that and minimize any further pain, with legislation and a constitutional amendment guaranteeing victims a number of rights.

The state's first law addressing the issue, passed back in 1971, created a system of compensation.

Spurred on by the national victims' rights movement and a group of New Jersey activists, New Jersey passed a victims' bill of rights in 1985 and then wrote those rights into the state constitution seven years later.

More recently, the state has passed additional measures to broaden victims' rights.

Advocates

The state has an Office of Victim Witness Advocacy, with offices in every county, to help victims negotiate court processes and get financial compensation. Staffers keep victims informed about court appearances and when a criminal is set for parole or release, help them get financial restitution from perpetrators, and help them fill out impact statements – describing how the crime affected them and their families -- for the court to consider. They are there to let victims know their rights and help them exercise them.

Bill of Rights

New Jersey's Crime Victims Bill of Rights] began with a dozen specific rights, foremost being the right to be treated with dignity and compassion by the criminal justice system -- something that many felt was not happening prior to the mid-1980s. Some other important rights include the right to compensation, the right to be notified of court proceedings, and the right to be present in the courtroom.

Over the years, the Legislature has taken steps to further broaden the rights of victims. Today they number about 20, with additional rights specified for the loved ones of murder victims. The most recent update, in 2012, clarified that victims have the right to be free from harassment, to be notified in a timely manner of the progress and scheduling of a court case, to be notified of a defendant’s escape, to have impact statements considered in pre-trial motions and plea agreements, and to be allowed to display pictures of the victim of a homicide during sentencing.

Constitutional amendment

Despite the enactment of the original Bill of Rights in 1985, victims still complained that they continued to receive second-class treatment, as judges habitually would determine that the rights of the accused to a fair trial trumped those of victims. For instance, judges could still ban victims from the courtroom to witness the trial of the person who hurt them or their loved one when a defense attorney argued that the presence of the victim could prejudice a jury.

In 1991, again pressed by the state's strong victims' rights advocates, lawmakers put on the ballot an amendment to the state constitution guaranteeing victims' rights. Voters overwhelmingly approved it.

The amendment simply states: "A victim of a crime shall be treated with fairness, compassion and respect by the criminal justice system. A victim of a crime shall not be denied the right to be present at public judicial proceedings except when, prior to completing testimony as a witness, the victim is properly sequestered in accordance with law or the Rules Governing the Courts of the State of New Jersey. A victim of a crime shall be entitled to those rights and remedies as may be provided by the Legislature."

While it may not sound like much, the amendment put victims on almost an equal footing with the perpetrators, who already had constitutional protections, and strengthened all the rights given to victims by the bill, especially the right to be present in court.

New Jersey is one of 33 states that constitutionally guarantee victims' rights.

Compensation

The right to receive compensation was the first right New Jersey crime victims received, back in 1971, when the Criminal Injury Compensation Act created an agency to award funds to help victims recover. Today, that's the responsibility of the state Victims of Crime Compensation Office.

Under current rules, anyone who is a victim of one of 14 crimes, ranging from food tampering to bias crimes to murder, is eligible for as much as $25,000. The money is meant to cover mental health counseling, unpaid medical bills, loss of earnings, funeral expenses, attorney's fees, and other costs. There's also a supplemental $35,000 payment available to pay for rehabilitation from a catastrophic injury. The state has a schedule of specific payment amounts available for various purposes, and the length of time for which victims can claim certain benefits.

Victims who qualify need to file the police report about the crime, an application seeking compensation, and copies of bills and receipts with the VCCO within three years of the crime.

In the 2014 fiscal year, the state paid almost $10 million to 2,600 victims, according to the office's annual report.

Other rights

Victims in New Jersey may have some other rights that have not been codified. In 2013, for instance, the state Supreme Court ruled that a defendant cannot choose to skip his sentencing and avoid hearing the victim's impact statement. A bill pending in the Legislature would write this into law, but even if it doesn't pass, this court decision should set a precedent for future cases.

More help

Crime victims who are still having trouble within the system can hire a lawyer, or seek help from the New Jersey Crime Victims' Law Center. Founded by Richard Pompelio, whose son Anthony was murdered in 1989, the center offers pro bono assistance to victims.

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