N.J. Assembly votes to expand 'Joan's Law' in child sex crime cases

S.P. Sullivan, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

The state Assembly on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill expanding a state law requiring tough sentences for those convicted of raping and murdering children.

The measure (A373) would require life without parole for anyone convicted of the murder of a minor under the age of 18 during the commission of a sex crime.

Sponsored by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, the bill builds upon tough sanctions put in place by Joan's Law, which was passed in 1997 and requires life without parole in cases involving victims younger than 14.

The law is named in memory of Joan D'Alessandro, a 7-year-old from New Jersey who was raped and murdered after being kidnapped by a neighbor while selling Girl Scout cookies in 1973.

One of its sponsors, Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), said the measure was meant to spare family members of young victims of horrific sex crimes of the "pain, suffering and anger" each time the child's killer is up for a new parole hearing.

"No family member should ever be subjected to the painful reminders of such horrifying events," she said in a statement. "A minor is a minor in all aspects of the law, and this bill eliminates an irrational discrepancy in New Jersey."

The bill still has to be passed by the state Senate before landing on Gov. Chris Christie's desk. It is currently before the Senate Judiciary committee.