NJ attorney general issues statewide directive on sexual assault protocols

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has issued new standards for providing services to victims of sexual assault to ensure that they receive respectful treatment and appropriate services from law enforcement agencies.

The standards address recent changes in law and policy, advances in evidence-based practices, and current realities impacting victims, officials said. The standards provide for more victim feedback and greater accountability. The new standards were formulated over the last two years by a working group consisting of prosecutors, healthcare professionals, service providers, victim advocates, the courts, and others, officials said.

Grewal has also issued a statewide law enforcement directive to ensure the implementation of the new standards and to improve protocols and oversight for sexual assault investigations and prosecutions.

In an effort to better track and evaluate sexual assault cases, the directive establishes new reporting requirements and provides for the gathering and evaluation of data on sexual assault response team activations, sexual assault investigations and prosecutions, the disposition of cases, and the factors used in determining case dispositions. It also requires each county prosecutor’s office to develop and implement procedures and protocols requiring law enforcement agencies to report sexual assault incidents and complaints within 24 hours. Under this directive, victims are provided the opportunity to meet with an assistant prosecutor who will explain the basis for a prosecution not going forward.

“While much has been done through the years to make law enforcement, healthcare professionals, and other service providers more responsive to the needs of sexual assault victims, there is always room for re-examination and improvement,” Grewal said. “These documents provide for increased input from victims and further evaluation of these issues going forward.”

The directive requires the investigating agency to advise the victim of additional resources and options, including the availability of sexual assault survivor protection act orders, which are protective court orders victims can obtain against their perpetrators.

County prosecutors must report detailed information to the attorney general on sexual assault response team activations and the handling and disposition of sexual assault investigations and prosecutions.

The directive requires all law enforcement agencies to report sexual assault incidents and complaints to county prosecutors within 24 hours of notice of the incident or receipt of the complaint.

A goal of the directive is to to ensure full compliance with the statutory mandate that in every sexual assault prosecution, the victim of the sexual assault will be provided an opportunity to consult with the prosecuting authority prior to the conclusion of any plea negotiations. In cases where prosecutors decline to bring charges, the directive requires that they offer the victim the opportunity to meet to discuss the reasons for not pursuing charges.

All final dispositions of sexual assault investigations will be reviewed and approved by a supervisor within the special victims unit or juvenile unit in the county prosecutor’s office prior to completion of the case.

The directive also requires the county prosecutors to conduct outreach to educate the public about the available resources and options for sexual assault victims. It also directs the 21 county prosecutors’ offices to comply with and ensure implementation of the standards.

The full directive is available online at www.nj.gov/oag/dcj/agguide/directives/ag-directive-2018-5.pdf.

The new standards focus on delivering services to victims in a timely and non-judgmental manner.  This standards are meant to: ensure the victim’s safety is the top priority; respect the integrity, choices, and autonomy of each victim; protect the victim’s privacy and confidential information; identify and respond to the obstacles some victims may face when seeking help; and recognize the importance of victim feedback in improving responses to sexual assault.

The updated standards include increased accountability, improved practices, and more training. The 21 county sexual assault response team advisory boards in the state will have greater duties to ensure proper oversight of the teams and ensure that any issues raised by victims, team members, stakeholders, or the state are dealt with according to the standards. Complaint procedures have been developed to address any complaints, issues, or unusual occurrences concerning a county sexual response response team program. The procedures and the roles of the sexual response team members are more clearly laid out in an effort to ensure a victim, no matter where the assault occurred, receives the same level of services and access to information. The standards also lay out more clearly the procedures for responding to child victims.

The standards are available online at www.nj.gov/oag/newsreleases18/AG-SART-Standards.pdf

“These revised standards address gaps in policy and procedure and seek to ensure all survivors of sexual violence in New Jersey have access to appropriate crisis services,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “For victims seeking services in the aftermath of a sexual assault, access to a timely, trauma-informed response can lay a solid foundation for pathways to healing and justice.”

Sussex County Prosecutor Francis Koch, president of the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, said the new protocols incorporate procedures and services that many of the 21 county prosecutor offices already implement.

“These revisions are a way to ensure a re-dedication to the victims of sexual assault across the state and to standardized services from all of the providing agencies,” she said.