NJ moves to give sexual assault victims more details about investigations

Bills spurred by work done by panel called to hear testimony of abuse in politics
Feb. 11, 2020: The first hearing of the Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics. The measures that passed the Assembly Monday grew out of the group’s work.

A package of bills designed to protect and enhance the rights of survivors of sexual assault in New Jersey cleared its final legislative hurdle Monday. The measures grew out of the work of a group of women looking into sexual abuse and harassment in state politics and government.

If signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, the measures would give those who suffer assault more information about any criminal case related to their complaints and some control over those cases. The law would require them to have information explaining their rights, the availability of counseling, and the ability to review and submit corrections to case reports.

“We often stress the importance of believing survivors. This package seeks to lay out the framework for not only believing survivors, but supporting and hearing them,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), prime Assembly sponsor of each bill in the package. “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.”

The seven bills, which passed the Assembly with no opposition, grew out of the ad hoc Workgroup on Harassment, Sexual Assault and Misogyny in New Jersey Politics formed by retiring Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) last year. More specifically, they were written in consultation with Katie Brennan, who in 2018 accused former Murphy campaign staffer Al Alvarez of sexual assault while she was volunteering for the campaign. Brennan, current chief of staff at the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, said the Murphy administration gave Alvarez a high-ranking position despite knowing about her complaint. This led to legislative hearings, Alvarez being pushed out of a job in state government and, last year, a $1 million settlement in Brennan’s lawsuit against the state.

‘Real support for survivors’

On the floor of the Assembly, Huttle thanked Brennan and the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault for their work on the bills and said she looked “forward to these bills being signed into law to provide real support to survivors across our state.”

Those bills, along with an eighth measure that would codify the state’s workplace anti-harassment and discrimination policy, passed the Senate last December. The bills the Assembly passed are:

  • A-4884/S-3070 would establish a Sexual Violence Restorative Justice Pilot Program that would bring survivors and their abusers together to help restore a sense of control and independence, uphold principles of autonomy and emphasize outcomes essential to the healing process of survivors;
  • A-4885/S-3071 would require law enforcement authorities to provide victims with the initial incident report on their complaint and give them the option to submit corrections to information in that report;
  • A-4886/S-3072 would require officials to give victims of assault details pertaining to their rights, the criminal justice process, available mental health services and how to get in touch with law enforcement and advocates;
  • A-4887/S-3073 would give victims the right to be notified of the prosecutor’s decision whether to file charges against an alleged perpetrator and the opportunity to discuss with prosecutors any proposed plea bargain before it is finalized;
  • A-4888/S-3074 would require the state attorney general to audit sexual assault cases and issue an annual report on them, including details of how many complaints are filed, how many prosecutors decline to bring to trial and how many are resolved by plea agreements;
  • A-4889/S-3075 would establish a specially trained sexual violence liaison officer in state and local police departments to serve as the primary point of contact on such cases, train other officers and monitor compliance with the law and directives;
  • A-4890/S-3076 would require county prosecutors and their assistants to complete training every three years on how to handle, investigate and respond to reports of sexual assault, as well as training in restorative justice.

“Choosing to press charges against one’s rapist is a challenging and very personal decision each survivor must make for themselves,” said Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex). “Finding ways to make the process more accommodating for the women and men who have been the victims of this terrible crime can help make that choice easier and hopefully begin to bring more perpetrators to justice.”

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), said that “sexual violence is unfortunately far too prevalent in our society, affecting at least one in every five women and one in 71 men.  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.”

Preventing discrimination, harassment

The ad hoc committee issued a report six weeks ago that led Weinberg to introduce another bill (S-3389), which would create a new office on discrimination and harassment prevention within the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. It would fund with $2 million this independent office to which people involved in the political arena would report allegations of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination, and have them investigated.

Following reports of violence at the state’s women’s prison in mid-January, Weinberg said she also plans to introduce as early as Thursday legislation that would create a new public advocate to conduct independent investigations of the treatment of those in prisons, developmental centers and other state facilities.

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