By a Biometrica staffer
On April 19, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey signed a package of bills into law, with an aim of bettering the criminal justice system to make it more respectful and responsive to victims of sexual assault crimes. Under the seven bill package, victims of sexual assault will be entitled to copies of police reports, be notified when prosecutors are filing charges against their assailants, and receive an information packet explaining their rights, the law, the court process, and available counseling service.
The bills also cover other aspects like periodic training for county prosecutors and assistant prosecutors who handle sex crimes, and training for the police. The goal of the package is also to give victims a chance to seek “restorative justice” should they decide not to report the crime, NJ.com reported, citing Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, a prime sponsor of the legislation. “Far too often, survivors of sexual assault who have the courage to come forward are victimized a second time,” Weinberg said, according to the article.
Murphy said he was “proud” to sign the bills into law, in a statement on April 19, NJ.com said. “It is imperative that we take steps to make sure that survivors in New Jersey know they can seek justice. Giving our law enforcement agencies clear directives and guidance on how to manage sexual assault cases will ensure that these cases are handled with survivors in mind,” the governor added.
Here’s a brief gist of the seven bills that were passed, according to NJ.com, with links to the full text of each bill:
- S3070: establishes a three-year “Sexual Violence Restorative Justice Pilot Program” in North, Central and South Jersey to bring survivors and their abusers together to seek collective healing solutions outside the judicial system.
- S3071: requires police departments provide a copy of the rape complaint and a form the victim could submit that makes corrections or additions. A county prosecutor’s office staffer will be named to help victims complete the forms.
- S3072: mandates that victims get an information packet explaining their rights, the law, the court process and available counseling services. They would also get a phone number to call for updates on their case.
- S3073: requires county prosecutors notify victims whether charges will be filed.
- S3074: mandates the attorney general to track sexual assault cases and issue an annual report with statistics on how many complaints were filed, prosecuted or led to plea agreements.
- S3075: obligates the State Police and local police departments to train sexual violence liaison officers to serve as the in-house experts and primary points of contact on sexual violence cases.
- S3076: requires county prosecutors and assistant prosecutors who handle sex crimes undergo periodic training developed by experts in “trauma-informed care and the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
- Pending bill S3389: calls for the creation of an independent investigative unit to handle sexual misconduct and harassment complaints involving political campaigns and government. The new investigative team would be overseen by the nonpartisan Election Law Enforcement Commission, the respected state agency that polices campaign finance laws.
Several people’s recommendations have gone into formulating these new laws, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a panel of women involved with New Jersey politics studying harassment and misconduct, and Katie Brennan, a former campaign volunteer on Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign who accused a senior official of his administration of raping her in 2017.
Brennan filed a complaint then against Albert Alvarez, who served as director for Latino outreach for Phil Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign, alleging that he raped her in an apartment in Jersey City. The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office and the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office decided not to prosecute citing a “lack of credible evidence that a crime was committed,” an article in the Hudson Reporter said. Despite Brennan’s repeated pleas to Gov. Phil Murphy’s senior aides, Alvarez remained in his $170,000-a-year state job for months before resigning, a New York Times article from 2019 said.
In May 2020, Brennan settled the lawsuit she filed against the state and the Murphy campaign for $1 million. Of that, she’s donating $600,000 to a charity that she says will allow low-income survivors in Hudson County to seek justice, the Hudson Reporter article added. As part of the settlement, the state will also implement key survivor-centric policy reforms, including allowing state employees who are alleged victims of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation to have an advisor or support person accompany them when he or she is interviewed by an Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action (EEO/AA) investigator.
On her part, Weinberg has worked towards finding solutions to the climate of sexual assault that pervades New Jersey politics in the past too. In December 2019, she said she was forming an ad hoc committee to look for ways to change the toxic culture women face in New Jersey’s politics, NJ.com reported back then.