TRENTON – A three-bill package sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman to strengthen crime victims’ rights laws in New Jersey was approved today by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.
The bills address protections for victims of sex crimes, permitting survivors – regardless of age – to testify in court proceedings via video. 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 are close to a violent crime victim to make an in-person statement to the court at sentencing, in addition to crime victims, and they establish housing and employment protections, among other provisions.
“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. “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.”
“Too many people are unable to find or keep employment or housing due to the stigma attached with being the victim of a crime, especially those that are high profile,” said Bateman. “We need to end this discrimination and do more to ensure that our courts are able to meet the special needs of those who have suffered to prevent further victimization.”
Specifically, the bills would:
• S-810 – Amend the NJ Law Against Discrimination to add crime victims as a protected status. Discrimination in the workplace and in public and private housing has become an additional burden crime victims bear as a result of their victimization. Victims of homicide, sexual offenses, and domestic violence who are required to cooperate with law enforcement in prosecuting the defendant often experience adverse employment treatment, including termination. Victims also are subjected to eviction when a landlord discovers they have been involved in a violent crime.
• S-811 – Expands 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 to present victim impact statements. For example, in the death of a child, courts will permit statements from the victim’s school teacher, good friend, athletic coach, or other person who may have had a close relationship with the victim. But some courts have denied statements from these persons claiming they do not fall within the definition of a victim. Under the bill, this practice will be consistent throughout the courts and reinforce the intent behind allowing victim impact statements.
The bill also permits victims of sexual assault and homicide survivors to be present at certain post adjudication hearings. While current law provides that victims have the right to be present at any judicial proceeding involving a crime, victims 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 any evidence that victims may have which is relevant to the court’s determination.
• Senate Committee Substitute for S-812 – Removes 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.
The bills were approved by a vote of 5-0. They next head to the full Senate for consideration.