TRENTON, NJ – The Senate Monday approved a four-bill package sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, Sen. Brian Stack, Sen. Shirley K. Turner and Sen. Steve Oroho to strengthen crime victims’ rights laws in New Jersey.
The passage of the legislation took place as the Senate marked the 25th Anniversary of enactment of the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Rights Amendment to the state Constitution, which cemented the right of crime victims to be treated fairly and their ability to be present at certain court proceedings.
“We can do much more to support survivors as they work to rebuild, recover and seek out the justice they deserve. This legislation will end discriminatory practices that have long prevented crime victims from securing housing and stable employment, and provide opportunities for survivors of any age to confront their abusers without fear,” said Bateman. “We must remain vigilant in our efforts to uphold and expand the strong laws we have in place to protect victims of violent crime. I am proud to have worked on a bipartisan basis with my colleague Senator Weinberg to advance these compassionate, commonsense measures and I hope to see all three bills signed into law as swiftly as possible.”
“The protection of victims’ rights is a priority that requires continuous attention and review to ensure we are adequately meeting the needs of our residents,” said Weinberg. “As we mark a milestone anniversary in our state’s work for crime victims, we are also committed to continuing to press forward to improve protections for survivors and their families. These bills take into account the challenges faced by crime victims, particularly those who have suffered from violent crimes, and their families. They build upon the work we have already done in New Jersey to assist survivors as they seek justice for the atrocities they suffered and attempt to rebuild their lives.”
Overwhelmingly approved by 1.2 million voters on Nov. 5, 1991, the Crime Victims’ Rights Amendment made New Jersey the eighth state to amend its constitution to provide justice for crime victims. In conjunction with the enactment of amendment, the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center was established by Richard D. Pompelio Esq., an organization that has provided free legal assistance to more than 15,000 victims of violent crime.
The bills approved today address protections for victims and witnesses of sex crimes, allowing them – regardless of age – to testify in court proceedings via video if they meet certain conditions. They allow victims of sexual assault and the survivors of homicide victims to be present at certain post adjudication hearings to provide information to the court before a decision is made on matters such as relieving an offender from Megan’s Law registration requirements.
In addition, they permit those who have a close relationship with a violent crime victim to make an in-person statement to the court at sentencing; establish housing and employment protections for crime victims; and provide witnesses and their families with relocation assistance.
“Facing a perpetrator in the courtroom can be an anguishing experience for victims and witnesses to violent crimes,” said Turner. “By removing the age limit for testifying by video at court proceedings, we will better ensure that individuals are not re-victimized by being forced into close proximity to an offender in the courtroom. This will also help to prevent those who have endured tragedies from having to suffer additional mental and emotional harm.”
“It is unconscionable to ask a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault to recount a traumatic experience in front of their abuser, when we know that forcing them to testify this way can inflict lasting emotional distress,” said Oroho. “It is my hope that allowing crime victims of any age to testify on closed circuit television will encourage more survivors to come forward and help us bring to justice the people who commit such violent and despicable acts.”
Specifically, the bills would:
S-810 (Weinberg/Bateman) – Amend the NJ Law Against Discrimination to add crime victims as a protected status. This would protect against discrimination in the workplace and in public and private housing, which can become an additional burden crime victims bear as a result of their victimization.
S-811 (Weinberg/Bateman) – Expand the rights of crime victims to include the right to allow certain non-victims to make an in-person statement at sentencing. Most courts in this State currently allow non-victims – such as a teacher or coach – to present victim impact statements. However, some courts have denied statements from these persons claiming they do not fall within the definition of a victim.
The bill also permits victims of sexual assault and homicide survivors to be present at certain post adjudication hearings. While current law allows victims to be present at any judicial proceeding involving a crime, they are excluded from hearings to determine whether a sex offender is eligible to be relieved of registration requirements after serving 15 years; hearings to determine a sex offender’s risk of reoffense upon release; and what are commonly referred to as Krol hearings, during which it is determined whether a person who has been acquitted by reason of insanity should be civilly committed. Under the bill, victims are able to attend these hearings and courts can accept evidence that victims may have that is necessary to resolve an issue of material fact.
S-812 (Weinberg/Turner/Oroho) – Remove the restriction that a witness be 16 years of age or younger to testify via closed circuit television (CCTV) in trials for certain sex crimes. Under current law, witnesses 16 years of age or younger may provide testimony via CCTV in prosecutions for aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal sexual contact, human trafficking involving sexual activity, and child abuse.
The witness is required to show that there is a substantial likelihood that the he or she would suffer severe emotional or mental distress if required to testify in open court. This bill removes the age restriction to allow witnesses of any age to testify via CCTV in certain cases, including those related to a crime involving domestic violence, endangering the welfare of a child, and abuse and neglect of a child, if certain conditions are met. The bill would also permit closed circuit testimony for crime victims in certain circumstances.
S-1050 (Weinberg/Stack) – Authorize the state Victims of Crime Compensation Office (VCCO) to pay for relocation expenses of witnesses and the families of witnesses of violent crimes. The bill defines a witness as a person who witnessed the commission of an enumerated violent crime, such as murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and sexual assault, and who has been threatened as a result of witnessing the crime. The legislation would allow for a maximum of $2,500 for relocation costs.
S810, S811 and S812 were approved unanimously by the Senate and now head to the Assembly for consideration. S-1050 was approved by a vote of 36-0; the Assembly approved it 72-0 in May. It now heads to the governor’s desk.