The full Assembly on Monday unanimously approved legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Gordon Johnson, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Tim Eustace, Gary Schaer, John McKeon and Elizabeth Maher Muoio to stiffen the penalties for creating a false public alarm in light of the string of bomb threats that rocked the Jewish community in New Jersey and throughout the country earlier this year.
"This sends a strong message that hate-based intimidation will not be tolerated," said Johnson (D-Bergen). "While the persistent threats we saw earlier this year may have subsided, we want to make it clear that these types of bigoted threats will not be tolerated in our state."
New Jersey, along with a number of other states, was the target of a rash of bomb threats aimed at Jewish Community Centers, temples and schools earlier this year. An Israeli-American was indicted in April in connection with the threats, but not before the state boosted patrol efforts at houses of worship and increased grant money to help non-profits and religious institutions beef up security.
"No one should have to live in fear simply for going to their house of worship or their community center," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "Anyone who might even think of making these types of hateful, bias-filled threats in the future should know that they will be held accountable."
Specifically, the bill (A-4732) would add creating a false public alarm to the list of underlying offenses for bias intimidation.
Under current law, depending upon the circumstances, the crime of creating a false public alarm can range from a fourth degree to a first degree crime. However, bias intimidation is a crime graded one degree higher than the most serious underlying crime. Therefore, the bill will automatically heighten the penalties for creating a false public alarm if it is found to be part of bias intimidation.
The sponsors noted that in cases where the underlying crime is of the first degree, for example, the defendant, upon conviction, may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment between 15 and 30 years, with a presumptive term of 20 years.
"What the Jewish community went through in our state, and in various parts of the country, is unacceptable," said Eustace (D-Bergen/Passaic). "Stiffening these penalties makes it clear that biased intimidation of any magnitude will not be tolerated."
"A country founded on the notion of freedom of religion must do everything in its power to protect that sacrament," said Schaer (D-Bergen/Passaic). "As a state, we are making it clear that anyone caught making these types of hateful threats in the future could very well find themselves behind bars for 20 to 30 years."
"These bias-based threats had a profound impact on a number of our communities," said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). "No one should be subjected to this type of targeted discrimination, especially not because of their faith. Stiffening these penalties is the right thing to do and hopefully other states will follow suit."
"False threats are not just psychologically damaging, they also have the potential to cause physical harm if they incite a panic," said Muoio (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). "Add to the mix a biased motivation and they become damaging to the community at large. There has never been a greater time to stand up and send a message that this will not be tolerated."
Under existing law, a person is guilty of the crime of bias intimidation if he commits, attempts to commit, conspires with another to commit, or threatens the immediate commission of certain offenses with, among other things, the purpose of intimidating an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity. The offenses include, but are not limited to, terroristic threats, assault, murder, and arson.
Under existing law, a person is guilty of creating a false public alarm if he initiates or circulates a report or warning of an impending fire, explosion, crime, catastrophe, emergency or any other incident knowing that the report or warning is false or baseless and that is likely to cause an evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transport, or to cause public inconvenience or alarm.
The legislation now heads to the Senate for consideration.