By Anthony Bellano
District 9 legislators had been concerned with the possibility that A-2027 would slow down the process.
New Jersey's General Assembly passed Bill A-2027 (PDF), dealing with the Jessica Lunsford Act, by a unanimous vote of 77-0 Thursday afternoon, Feb. 21, according to the State Legislature's website.
On Tuesday, the Ninth Legislative District sent a letter to Galloway Council and supporters of the Jessica Lunsford Act, stating that they felt the "watered-down" version of the bill circulated in the Assembly would slow down the process for getting the act passed in the state.
The legislators wrote, in part, that "passing A-2027 will further delay the enactment of the Jessica Lunsford Act as the Senate would be required to reconsider the legislation.”
Sen. Christopher J. Connors, Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf and Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove also expressed concern over the lack of a harboring provision.
When introduced, the bill called for the harboring or concealment of a sex offender to be a second-degree crime, with certain exceptions reserved for the crime to be considered a third or fourth-degree crime. Offenders would be subject to increased penalties for harboring a known sex offender.
On Sept. 27, the Assembly Judiciary Committee amended the bill to eliminate the stricter penalty. The bill was adopted with amendments on Dec. 17, 2012.
The bill proposes a sentence of between 25 years and life in prison, in which a person convicted of sexual assault against a child younger than 13 must serve 25 years before being eligible for parole.
Additionally, the cost estimate related to the bill projects a cost of $43,000 to house an inmate for the fiscal year 2013, according to Department of Corrections data.
"It's a step in the right direction," Deputy Mayor Tony Coppola said Thursday night. "It's our obligation to help our children. They're helpless."
Coppola and Councilmen Brian Tyrrell and Jim McElwee agreed that the harboring provision is needed, but the passage of the bill through the Assembly was a positive step.
"It's like harboring a fugitive," Tyrrell said. "If an individual is not registered and you knowingly give that person refuge, there should be a fine for that. The passing of the bill is definitely a move in the right direction. It's a great thing."
"I am disapointed that the Bill A-2027 was offered in a diluted version and not the original Bill S-380 (PDF) that was passed by the Senate almost unanimously," McElwee said. "However, you take your victories when you can get them and supporters of this bill have fought long and hard for many years, especially here in Galloway. Mrs. J and the CUFFS committee are to be congratulated for their tenacity in pushing local and state legislators to pass this into law for the protection of children across the state."
In October of last year, the New Jersey State Senate passed S-380/S-642 (PDF). The Senate version of the bill classifies harboring as a fourth-degree crime subject to a minimum of six months in prison.
The primary sponsors of the Assembly Bill are District 21 Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, District 11 Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini, District 24 Assemblywoman Allison Littell McHose and District 22 Assemblyman Jerry Green.
The legislation is named after Jessica Lunsford, a nine-year-old girl who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered by a registered sex offender in 2005. Lunsford was from Florida, and many states have enacted “Jessica’s Law” since. New Jersey is one of the few remaining states that have not, but the process had picked up speed after languishing for the past few years, stemming from a town hall meeting in Galloway between the Delegation and Galloway and Port Republic residents last February.
Following that meeting, the delegation began an online petition drive calling for legislative action to be taken on the Jessica Lunsford Act as well as other sex offender legislation.
In a matter of three weeks in the fall, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee passed the bill, followed by the Assembly Judiciary Committee and the State Senate.