Grewal announces new guidelines for assault investigations — but do they go far enough for workplace?

A week before the Legislature is set to hold a special hearing regarding how a sexual assault allegation against a staff member during Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign was handled, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced 14 new guidelines around the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases in the state.

Under the new standards, the person making the charge will be able to speak to prosecutors before plea bargains are extended. If the cases are dismissed without charges being filed, a supervisor within the “special victims unit” in the county prosecutor’s office also would review the case.

In addition, Grewal is requiring prosecutors’ offices in all 21 counties to log all sexual assault cases they investigate and is requiring them to report all of those cases to the attorney general’s office, detailing how they were handled, twice a year.

The new standards are being implemented to both prioritize the needs of the alleged victims and to make sure they receive respectful treatment, the attorney general’s office said in a statement.

One attorney, who specializes in sexual harassment and assault charges in the workplace, questioned if the new guidelines went far enough.

Neil Mullin, an attorney at Smith Mullin P.C., said the lines of communication could be increased even more.

“There seems to be an infrequent and light reporting relationship between the county prosecutor’s office and the attorney general’s office,” he said.

Mullin also said it doesn’t address a bigger issue in the workplace: escalating cases.

“We run into sexual assault in the workplace frequently, and it would probably be a good thing if the attorney general would create some as part of directive where lawyers who are dealing with civil cases can report in to the attorney general for assistance and guidance … in prosecuting it criminally,” Mullin said.

The issues came to light last month, when former Murphy campaign staffer Katie Brennan, in a Wall Street Journal article, publicly accused former Murphy campaign staffer Al Alvarez of raping her during the campaign.

The Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office chose not to prosecute Alvarez, who has denied the allegations. Alvarez, who had been serving as chief of staff at the Schools Development Authority, resigned shortly after the story was published.

Brennan, in the article, said she felt both law enforcement officials and people within the Murphy transition team and his administration mishandled and tried to bury her claims.

Brennan, in a statement, called the new protocols “an encouraging step forward in ensuring justice for survivors.

“But there is still much more work to do. I am hopeful that our elected leaders continue to push for progress on this urgent issue.”

Grewal acknowledged the state can and will do more in his statement.

“While much has been done through the years to make law enforcement, health care professionals and other service providers more responsive to the needs of sexual assault victims, there is always room for re-examination and improvement,” he said.

“The directive and standards issued today are the result of outstanding collaboration among law enforcement, the service community and advocates for sexual assault survivors. Moreover, these documents provide for increased input from victims and further evaluation of these issues going forward. With these actions, we ensure that New Jersey remains at the forefront of nationwide best practices and standards in our efforts to stamp out sexual violence.”

Murphy told reporters Tuesday that the attorney general’s announcement is just one part of a three-pronged approach he began to investigate Brennan’s allegations and how her complaints went unnoticed for so long.

Read the other standards and new training from the attorney general’s office here.