New Jersey has comprehensive crime victims’ rights laws, but they have become obsolete in at least one respect: They do not protect the rights of domestic partners or those in civil unions to get the same services and aid to which spouses and other relatives of victims are entitled.
That could change with an update to the law co-sponsored by Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset). The legislation (S-180/A1421) has already passed the Senate and is awaiting final action by the Assembly.
It seems almost a little late for lawmakers to take this action, given that same-sex marriage has been legal in New Jersey for the past several years. Spouses in same-sex marriages are covered by the victims’ rights laws, but those couples living in civil unions or domestic partnerships are not. Bateman’s bill would help ensure that, in those cases, a surviving partner has the same rights as a legal spouse.
The state’s Crime Victims Bill of Rights makes victims eligible for services and reimbursement due to a crime. In addition to spouses, parents, grandparents, children, and siblings of murder victims typically have been accorded these rights. But those in civil unions and domestic partnerships — which were until recently the only way same sex couples could “marry” — have been denied state help. There are also opposite sex couples who are not married but living in domestic partnerships, first recognized in New Jersey in 2004, who are not covered by the state’s crime victims’ laws.
“The benefits and protections afforded to crime victims and their loved ones is a way to begin the healing process and to make what can be a difficult criminal process as smooth as possible,” said Bateman. “Extending these benefits to a surviving domestic or civil-union partner addresses a major oversight in the state’s law.”
It’s not the first time domestic and civil-union partners have found themselves discriminated against, despite state law saying those unions are essentially the same as marriage. Couples had complained about unequal treatment in the healthcare system and in receiving benefits, among other areas. The inequality was one reason cited in the push to legalize same-sex marriage.
Bateman’s bill, which passed the Senate 32-0 last month, seeks to expand the definition of “victim” in law. It would specify those explicitly named in New Jersey’s crime-victims rights constitutional amendment — the parents, children, and so on — and add partners in civil unions and domestic partnerships to that list. The bill of rights currently specifies that the “nearest relative” of a murder victim is eligible for services and compensation.
One reason for the incongruity is the way the state accorded victims rights.
The state established a compensation system for victims back in 1971. That was followed by the bill of rights in 1985, which gave victims a dozen specific rights, including the right to be treated with compassion, receive compensation and to appear at court proceedings. Seven years later, voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment after victims-rights advocates found that without protection in the constitution, victims were not being accorded certain rights, because only the accused had constitutional protections
In more recent years, lawmakers have added other rights, including those specifically meant for the relatives of murder victims, including the ability to display pictures of a slain loved one during the sentencing hearing following a homicide conviction. But these are not always accorded to domestic partners, the legislation notes.
“The current law says ‘nearest relative’ so it’s very limited and conflicts with the constitution,” said Richard Pompelio, a longtime leader in the victims right movement who heads the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center that provides free legal assistance to victims. “This definition expands the one in the constitution permitting additional relationships to include domestic and civil-union partners plus those already in the constitution. They will be entitled to the rights afforded under the victims rights laws plus victim compensation.”
Pompelio, whose son Tony was murdered in 1989, was somewhat surprised but pleased by the speed with which the legislation has moved. He said he expects Gov. Chris Christie to sign it “because it is the right thing to do and he is a supporter of victims rights.”
Among the assistance available to victims and their relatives in New Jersey are the state’s Offices of Victim Witness Advocacy to help victims negotiate court processes. The Victims of Crime Compensation Office evaluates applications for financial assistance from victims of 14 crimes, ranging from food tampering to bias crimes to murder to cover mental-health counseling, unpaid medical bills, loss of earnings, funeral expenses, attorney’s fees, and other costs. In the 2014 fiscal year, the state paid almost $10 million to 2,600 victims, according to the office’s annual report.
Characterizing the bill as an issue of fairness, the sponsors’ statement says “the current practice of excluding domestic and civil-union partners from these protections and benefits is unfair to the survivor and contrary to the intentions of the victim.”