What does the attorney general’s new directive mean for sexual assault survivors?

BY Briana Vannozzi, Senior Correspondent |

New Jersey’s Attorney General is beefing up guidelines for handling sexual assault cases in the state. Gurbir Grewal issued a 14-point directive to all law enforcement officers, roughly a month after Gov. Phil Murphy asked his office to review how such cases are prosecuted. So what are the changes and what do they mean? Patricia Teffenhart is the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. She was part of the team that developed the new standards.

Vannozzi: A lot of this is about being victim-centered. Were our previous procedures not victim-centered? What was wrong with our previous guidelines?

Teffenhart: I would say, as our previous guidelines were written in 2004, were really good based off of what we knew in 2004.

Vannozzi: So it’s been a while since we updated. Well over a decade.

Teffenhart: Yeah. Absolutely. And as we know more about the impact of trauma, how that impacts victims, how we need to respond, how that affect presents differently in different scenarios, it requires us to take a look at how we are responding, and what kind of standards and policies can we put in place to make sure that we are actually meeting best practice standards as our knowledge base has evolved.

Vannozzi: Sure, okay. So let’s go through some of those. The big ones that I see: law enforcement agencies have to report sexual assault complaints to county prosecutors within 24 hours. Prosecutors’ offices now have to report that information to the state — so to the attorney general. And, prosecutors who decline to pursue charges now are required to meet with victims if they have questions about that. So is that going to encourage more victims to come forward to report, because that’s still a huge issue.

Teffenhart: That’s our hope. Right? This is the most under-reported crime. It’s not a New Jersey-specific issue — it’s a national issue, with survivors not feeling comfortable coming forward. I think what the [attorney general] has offered with this directive is higher levels of accountability, so less survivors slip through the cracks, so we at the statewide level can start assessing where there are gaps in policies and process. If we find that there are municipalities where maybe more survivors are coming forward, for the prosecutors to know that, so we can perhaps figure — point where we can perhaps put in more training mechanisms. Like, all of this data collection and accountability is huge for us moving forward.

Vannozzi: That data collection is a big part of this. Gov. Murphy, he put out a statement with this, saying that these are meaningful reforms; that this puts New Jersey as a leader. But essentially also said, “I ordered the attorney general’s office to do this review of our practices and guidelines following a case that the state is investigating.” This is between Katie Brennan, a state worker, a former campaign worker for Gov. Murphy who accused a fellow campaign worker while on his gubernatorial bid of sexual assault. And he said, “Hey, I asked the attorney general to review this.” But you all have been working on this longer than a month when Gov. Murphy says he put out this order.

Teffenhart: Yeah, it would have been virtually impossible for us to come up with something so comprehensive in that short span of time. I mean, the reality is we have spent two years working as a multidisciplinary team, huddled in conference rooms at the attorney general’s office, really hashing out what we think we need to do moving forward in relation to the attorney general’s standards. It is probably also true that the governor did ask that the review of these guidelines be expedited in response to the current common narrative that we’re dealing with here in New Jersey. But it is absolutely true that for two years, we really spent a lot of time, attention to great detail. Every word was sifted over and mulled over to make sure that we were as victim-centered as possible in our response and our approach. It was a really collaborative effort between people who are advocates for survivors — those who work in the criminal justice process. It was a very well-represented group of professionals, committed to moving this process forward.

Vannozzi: So, on that note, essentially these new recommendations, or complementary recommendations are saying, you know, the buck kind of stops with the county’s prosecutor’s office, as far as the communication and following up on the reporting. But we had just received word about the Hudson County prosecutor who was involved in that case with Mr. Alvarez and Ms. Brennan, saying essentially that the Hudson County prosecutor didn’t act improperly. So what’s the intent here, what’s going to change if a day after these directives are put out, that county prosecutor isn’t being held accountable.

Teffenhart: Yeah, we’re left asking a lot of questions around what we perceive to be a slight disconnect between the standards and directives that were offered yesterday in the statement we all read in relation to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. Two things can be true. It can be true that the investigation done by the attorney general’s office didn’t find that the prosecutor herself was responsible or negligent in any way. It can also be true that we have a lot more work to do where our systems are failing survivors when they’re coming forward. Regardless of how we look at it, Katie Brennan presents, as a survivor, that by all means should have had the opportunity to move through the criminal justice system. She had fresh complaint witnesses, she had a promptly-filed police report, she had a forensic medical exam conducted — she had so many more things working to her favor than most survivors do. If Katie Brennan couldn’t open the doors to justice, then what does that say for other survivors? Despite what these new directives tell us, survivors are listening to what we’re saying, and I feel like we’re perhaps running into a space where our messages are contradicting each other.

Vannozzi: Sure, there’s already enough hurdles. Folks feel re-victimized. They have to relive — re-traumatize — when they have to go through that. So, to then have those barriers in place or to see them not being effective may further that.

Teffenhart: Yeah that’s what we’re worried about I do think that the directives try to speak to some of those levels of accountability, making sure that decisions that are being made lower down the chain are funneling up to the highest levels of leadership in the prosecutors’ offices. I think, perhaps, if that hadn’t been a clear directive before, then perhaps the AG’s assessment that the Hudson County prosecutor wasn’t responsible could stand as being accurate, based off of what was policy at the time. New policies, I hope, would remedy that and hold everyone more accountable. Ultimately, the more accountable we are as professionals, the more accountable we can hold perpetrators.

Vannozzi: I’m curious what you think this might do as we await federal guidelines about campus sexual assault reporting, and the changes that are going to happen there. Where do you stand? Do you feel like this may help New Jersey in that way?

Teffenhart: We are deathly terrified for the guidance that we expect to come down and become lay of the land in relation to Title IX. Really what it does is repeal so many protections that we had fought long and hard to make sure we’re present on our college campuses. If college campuses are no longer being held to a higher standard in keeping their communities safe, then it is a good complement that we are looking at higher levels of accountability for outside systems. But, again, we are now kind of digging ourselves out of a whole, whereas before, these directives in complement with a strong Obama-era guidance for campuses would have created safer communities as a whole, and now we’re kind of going back to the drawing board around what are campus survivors supposed to do based off of what we perceive to be really damaging guidance from the feds.

Vannozzi: Patricia Teffenhart, always good to have you stop by. Thank you so much.

Teffenhart: Thank you.