New Jersey could join a small but growing number of states by creating a “bill of rights” for victims of sexual assault. The goal: reduce the associated shame, better connect victims with services, and help keep law enforcement and providers on the same page.
Senate President Steve Sweeney and Sen. Linda Greenstein, both Democrats, outlined legislation to establish a “Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights,” late last week. The proposal would pull together existing laws in a clear statement designed to clarify the rights of the assault survivor and the responsibilities of all those involved in any treatment, investigation, and prosecution.
Specifically, the bill would codify the victim’s right to be taken seriously and not be treated as though they were at fault. It would also systemize their right to access trained mental health and physical health services at no cost, and law enforcement assistance — if they choose to report the crime. It also makes clear that survivors are entitled to free testing for sexually transmitted diseases, outlines the forensic regulations, and ensures they know how to file to receive additional legal protections. They also have a right to services in their own language, if possible, and complete confidentiality.
Discouraged from filing complaints
“These victims are sometimes discouraged from proceeding with their complaints and as a result are not afforded the protections and rights that they deserve or the support services they need,” said Greenstein, (D-Mercer), who chairs the Law and Public Safety Committee. All victims of sexual violence have the right to be treated with respect, dignity, and empathy in all circumstances.”
The Garden State already has a strong response to sexual assault — one that is respected nationwide — explained Patrician Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, who worked with the senators to craft the bill. Recent efforts have reinforced these laws, making it easier for law enforcement to prosecute sex assaults and enhancing protections for survivors.
This bill would take these advances one-step further, making it easier for survivors to take control of their recovery at a painful and chaotic time, Teffenhart said. It also makes it easier for the many agencies and organizations involved with sexual assault and its victims to ensure they are providing appropriate and uniform services. (Detailed bill language did not appear to be available publicly on the state Legislature’s website, as of Sunday evening.)
“This is not a giant omnibus of new services,” Teffenhart explained. “The idea was to put it all in one place to help streamline for survivors their process of either seeking justice, or not, and getting other care in ways that right now is just very fragmented.”
NJ’s rape crisis network
The state’s rape crisis network — which provides free services in all 21 counties and at Rutgers University, coordinated by the coalition, or NJCASA — receives some 10,000 calls a year from survivors of a range of sexual violence. In all, fewer than 1,400 rapes were reported to law enforcement in 2015, a nearly 7 percent uptick from the year before.
To Teffenhart and other advocates, that uptick is a good sign. It means more people are coming forward to report these crimes and seek justice, and care. Nearly one in five women and one in 71 men are raped during their lifetime, often at a young age.
“Sexual assault is a crime that has occurred in the shadows for far too long and is often treated as a crime of shame for the victims,” Sweeney, (D-Gloucester) agreed. “They have the right to be treated with respect and dignity by a system that protects their safety and wellbeing. A Victim’s Bill of Rights will provide the legal and emotional protections they deserve.”
Teffenhart said at least two other states have passed similar rights bills — Oregon and Virginia — and Washington and Massachusetts have introduced related legislation. Minnesota and California are also working on plans, she said, and other states could be as well. A similar bill was approved on the federal level last year, which applies only to federal crimes — a small sliver of sexual assaults — but has served as a model for some of the state legislation.
“It’s a very powerful statement,” she said. “That’s kind of what we’re hoping will happen in New Jersey.”