NJCASA Statement: Judicial Comments, the Justice System, & Responding to Sexual Violence

Lawrenceville, N.J. – An overwhelming majority of survivors of sexual violence will never access the entirety of the criminal justice system. According to the national Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 230 are reported to police, 46 will lead to an arrest, 9 will land on a prosecutor’s desk, and 5 will lead to a felony conviction.

Recent widely publicized comments from judges in the Garden State only reinforce the point: the justice system, as it exists, is often not serving survivors of sexual violence well. The comments were victim-blaming and a manifestation of the fears that many survivors have when deciding how they want to proceed in the aftermath of an assault. We know that comments such as these do not occur in a vacuum, and that what has been amplified is the need for comprehensive, large-scale reform in how we approach justice for victims in the aftermath of a sexual assault.

To inform statewide policy and practice reform, the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NJCASA) launched the first ever Statewide Sexual Violence Survivor Survey earlier this year, to hear directly from victims/survivors of sexual assault about their experiences in the aftermath of an assault. Six weeks after launching the survey, the preliminary data from close to 300 respondents clearly calls for large-scale justice reform.

  • 89.3% of respondents indicate that the person who harmed them was known to them
  • 78.5% of respondents did not report the incident to law enforcement
    • Of those who did not report to law enforcement
      • 25% indicated that they did not want the person who harmed them to get in trouble
      • 10.3% indicated that they didn’t think they’d be treated fairly due to their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or immigration status, etc.
      • 36% indicated that they didn’t think they’d be believed
      • 42.5% indicated that they were afraid

Therefore, NJCASA calls for a two-fold solution, focused on accountability and foundational reform. NJCASA contends that a system that is reaching a mere fraction of survivors is a system that is not working at all and in response urges the following immediate and direct actions:

Accountability for Judges Troiano & Silva. Yesterday, when the Supreme Court of New Jersey considered disciplinary action towards an Ocean County judge who made headlines earlier this year for multiple instances of inappropriate actions and harmful comments, Chief Justice Rabner asked, “Could a reasonable victim of sexual assault come away with confidence in the integrity of the process if Judge Russo presided over that matter in the future?” NJCASA asks the same question when considering the fitness of both Judges Troiano and Silva. NJCASA does not take issue with their ultimate decision to not try children as adults. However, the articulation of their rationale minimized the impact of sexual assault victimization and inflicted further harm on the survivors whose cases they were considering. NJCASA calls upon the Supreme Court of New Jersey to review both Judges Troiano and Silva as they did Judge Russo.

Strengthen the judiciary’s understanding of sexual violence. As illuminated in the statistics above, very few survivors of sexual assault are accessing the criminal justice system. When they do, it’s imperative that those responsible for hearing their cases understand the unique trauma associated with sexual assault victimization. To that end, NJCASA joins Senators Weinberg and Corrado and Assemblywomen Vainieri Huttle and Muñoz in support of long-overdue training requirements for judges. For too long, we’ve been told “there isn’t enough time” for such training. NJCASA contends that we don’t have any more time to lose.

Invest in restorative justice.  Across the country, communities are implementing restorative justice programs to expand opportunities for healing and accountability after sexual assaults occur. As restorative justice expert sujatha baliga writes, “Whereas the criminal justice system focuses exclusively “on ‘what law was broken, who broke it, and how should they be punished?’ restorative justice asks, ‘Who was harmed? What do they need? Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?”” It’s time for New Jersey to invest in these principles; for a research-based review of implementing restorative justice practice to address sexual harm, please see NJCASA’s whitepaper on the topic.

Yesterday, NJCASA submitted a proposal to the Office of the Attorney General requesting an investment into a large-scale, community-based, sexual-violence focused restorative justice program for the Garden State. Both national and statewide data affirms the need for N.J. to consider bold approaches to meeting the needs of sexual violence survivors. As victims-survivors follow the news and weigh the options before them, this is the time to expand our portfolio of options to meet their needs.

NJCASA respectfully calls on the Office of the Attorney General to affirmatively respond to the request to launch a multi-year restorative justice pilot program that will better meet the needs of those who have been harmed, those who have caused harm, and the communities we’re collectively called to serve.

Commit to productive, solutions-focused dialogue. NJCASA shares feelings of outrage and disappointment that overt, harmful, victim-blaming attitudes continue to persist in our justice system. However, we were similarly disheartened to read and hear violent responses to these judges, including threats of rape and physical violence. NJCASA strongly condemns these comments. Calling for violence or victimizations of anyone, including those we are angry with, is never okay. Put simply, we will never create the safer Garden State we envision with violence. Outrage without strategic action solves none of the great challenges before us.

We know few of NJCASA’s outlined solutions are “quick-fixes,” because we simply do not believe that they exist. What is required is divestment from the ways that our systems are falling short and investment in what survivors are asking for – solutions that exist outside of our existing system. We are not doing the work with integrity if we continue to only offer one option for justice, if we excuse those whose conduct has caused harm, if we aren’t building the best and most responsive systems we can for victims and survivors.

ABOUT NJCASA: NJCASA (www.njcasa.org) is the statewide technical assistance, and capacity building organization that represents New Jersey’s twenty-one county-based rape crisis centers, and the Rutgers University Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance. NJCASA elevates the voice of sexual violence survivors and service providers by advocating for survivor-centered legislation, training allied professionals, and supporting statewide prevention strategies that work to address and defy the socio-cultural norms that permit and promote rape culture.

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