Bill to expand 'Joan's Law,' named for slain Hillsdale girl, advances in Assembly

Andrew Wyrich, The Record

A bill that would amend “Joan’s Law” to cover a wider range of child victims was unanimously voted out of the state Assembly’s Judiciary Committee on Monday.

Joan’s Law is named for Joan D’Alessandro, a 7-year-old Hillsdale girl who was raped and murdered by a neighbor in 1973 as she delivered Girl Scout cookies. The amended bill would deny parole eligibility for anyone convicted of killing a child in the course of committing a sex crime when the victim is under age 18. Currently, the law covers children up to age 14.

The Judiciary Committee’s unanimous vote to send the bill to the full Assembly for a vote is a welcome sign for Joan’s mother, Rosemarie D’Alessandro, who has relentlessly pushed for stricter parole laws since her daughter’s death. She actively supported the passage of New Jersey’s version of Joan’s Law in 1997 as well as a federal version in 1998 and a New York state measure in 2004.

“This is the first step, a big step,” D’Alessandro said Monday. “This isn’t for me – the law won’t be retroactive for Joan’s killer. This is for changing the way things are. It’s for making a better, safer and more just world for people.”

D’Alessandro has endured three parole hearings — most recently in 2008 — for Joseph McGowan, the former high school teacher who was convicted of raping and murdering her daughter.

Sponsors of the amendment were happy to see it released from committee early in the legislative session. The committee advanced the bill in December, but it did not come up for a vote by the full Assembly before the legislative session ended on Jan. 12.

“The crimes covered in this legislation are atrocious regardless of the victim’s age,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, said. “The pain, suffering and anger would continue to manifest every time there is a new parole hearing. No family member should ever be subjected to the painful reminders of such horrifying events. A minor is a minor in all aspects of the law, and this bill eliminates an irrational discrepancy in New Jersey.”

Assemblyman Robert Auth, R-Old Tappan, said he believes there is a chance the full Assembly could vote on the bill early next week.

“I’m optimistic,” Auth said. “Once this is all over, Mrs. D’Alessandro can put another feather in her cap. She will have done something good for the state of New Jersey.”

In addition to a vote on the Assembly floor, a companion bill will need to take the same path in the state Senate. The Senate version of the bill will need to clear its Judiciary Committee before it can receive a full vote.

As of Monday, the Joan’s Law amendment was not listed on the schedule for the Senate Judiciary Committee’s next meeting on Thursday.

Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a sponsor of the Senate’s version of the bill, said recently that he hopes action in the Assembly would prompt the Senate Judiciary Committee to act.

On Monday D’Alessandro said she hopes “things move quickly” in the Senate so Governor Christie can sign the bill in April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.