By Joelle Farrell
TRENTON - The New Jersey Senate approved a bill Thursday that would lock up certain child sex offenders for a minimum of 25 years. The measure had languished for years and drew the attention last summer of conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly.
The Jessica Lunsford Act, named for a 9-year-old Florida girl who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a registered sex offender in 2005, would punish those convicted of aggravated sexual assault against a child under 13 with a 25-years-to-life prison sentence. The bill also would sentence anyone who harbored such an offender to a minimum of six months in jail and impose up to $10,000 in fines.
The Senate, ruled by Democrats, voted 31-0 in favor. In the Assembly, the bill remains in committee.
Sen. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) introduced the bill in 2005, but it never made it to a floor vote until this week. New Jersey is one of the few states that has not enacted some type of "Jessica" law.
"I think politics played a role, unfortunately," Allen said after the vote. "Hopefully we won't have to deal with that again. I'm happy that this was a bipartisan effort."
O'Reilly in July accused Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) of blocking a vote on the bill. He called Sweeney's inaction "cowardly."
The West Deptford ironworker went on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor in August, noting that he cosponsored the latest version of the bill. Sweeney also sponsored a 2005 bill requiring GPS tracking of convicted sex offenders, a major component of Florida's "Jessica" law.
But Sweeney acknowledged on the show that seven years was too long for the bill to sit.
During the voting session Thursday, Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari (D., Union), a lawyer, asked how the law would affect a 13-year-old who had consensual sex with a 12-year-old. Could the 13-year-old be sentenced to 25 years in prison?
A 13-year-old would be tried as a juvenile, Allen said, and no 13-year-old in the last five years has been tried as an adult.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) voted for the bill but said he wanted to ensure that it included provisions that would prevent teenagers engaging in consensual sex from being prosecuted.
The Office of Legislative Services could not determine an exact cost, but it estimates that the bill could add as much as $6.5 million annually to the corrections budget.
Gov. Christie, a Republican, told O'Reilly that he would likely sign such a bill.
Under current law, a person convicted of such a crime would face 10 to 20 years in prison and could be released on parole after serving 81/2 years.