|Sen. Diane Allen & Mark Lunsford|
By David Levinsky
TRENTON - State Sen. Diane Allen first introduced New Jersey’s Jessica Lunsford Act in June 2005, a few months after the 9-year-old Florida girl was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a twice-convicted sex offender.
In the ensuing years, Allen has reintroduced the measure every two years at the kickoff of a new legislative session, only to see it fall short of being signed into law.
This January marked the sixth time she has introduced the bill. She’s hoping it will be the last time.
“As you all know, Jessica was kidnapped, raped and buried alive back in 2005. Since then, I’ve had a bill in (the Legislature) to change many aspects of our law so we can make sure this kind of thing cannot happen to any children in New Jersey,” Allen said Thursday during a hearing on the latest version of the bill before the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.
- 10 million laws will not prevent another tragedy like this. You are, in our opinion, just exploiting children, fear and Mr. Lunsford for your own political gain.
“Unfortunately, we’re now one of only five states that haven’t passed any Lunsford laws,” she said during the hearing, the first by the panel of the new legislative session.
The new version of the bill seeks to impose a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in prison for anyone convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child under age 13, except in certain circumstances of a negotiated plea agreement.
Current law permits a 10- to 20-year prison sentence for the crime.
Allen said the plea agreement clause was added at the behest of state prosecutors, who argued that there are some occasions when it’s in the best interest of the victims to permit a negotiated plea deal. In those cases, the bill allows an offender to be sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in prison.
The new bill also excludes previous language mandating that anyone found guilty of harboring an offender or hindering the arrest or conviction of a sex offender would face a mandatory sentence of six months in prison without the possibility of parole. Allen plans to introduce a separate bill with that penalty.
“Frankly, it’s a watered-down version. It is not the one the committee chairman (Donald Norcross, D-5th of Camden) was looking for or what I was looking for. But it is a start,” Allen said during the hearing.
Also testifying in favor of the measure was Gregory Quinlan of the New Jersey Family Policy Council. He pointed to a recent state auditor's report that said many New Jersey parole officers were failing to maintain regular contact with sex offenders they are assigned to supervise, including some convicts marked for mandatory parole supervision.
“This is why this (bill) is so important,” Quinlan said. “I just want to see this passed.”
- So how would passing this law fix what you mentioned above? It won't!
There has been some progress in moving the measure forward. During the last session, two versions of the bill were approved by the Senate and Assembly, but the chambers failed to approve a single bill with the same language.
The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee voted 5-0 on Thursday to release the measure from the committee. Norcross said he hoped it could be fast-tracked through the Senate.
“This is why we put this bill No. 1 on our 216th legislative agenda,” he said.
Allen, who hosted Jessica’s father, Mark Lunsford, during a Statehouse news conference in 2011 to advocate for the bill, said New Jersey has waited too long to put the bill’s child protection measures into law.
- When Jessica went missing it was said child porn was found on Mr. Lunsfords computer, and his own son molested a child but got a slap on the wrist.
“There is little as heinous as the sexual assault of a child, and it’s time we send a message that those types of monstrous actions are going to be punished severely,” she said. “Those vile enough to commit this type of a crime once should never be afforded the opportunity to put a second child and family through a similar tragedy.”
- So why isn't your own son, and possibly you, in prison then?