Rachel Martin and Cecilia Levine, Daily Voice
HILLSDALE, N.J. -- A Hillsdale mom on Wednesday saw her seven years of hard work come to fruition when the state Assembly voted unanimously to amend Joan's Law.
Passed in 1997, Joan's Law mandates life without parole in murder cases involving sexual assault where the victims are younger than 14.
The amendment would expand the life-without-parole category to those who similarly victimize anyone younger than 18.
The Senate will now take up the measure.
"It was a tremendous amount of work, but it's really worth fighting for," Rosemarie D'Alessandro told Daily Voice, "and we'll continue until it's passed."
"A minor is a minor, and we wanted to eliminate that discrepancy in the law," Rep. Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) said. She was one of the six primary sponsors of the amendment.
"You have to take care of the older kids, too," Rosemarie D'Alessandro said. "Fourteen and up, it's a very vulnerable age for girls."
Her daughter Joan was 7 years old, and out selling Girl Scout cookies door-to-door in 1973, when she was raped and murdered by her neighbor, Joseph McGowan.
He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison -- but eligible for parole 14 years later.
McGowan was denied parole in 1987, and multiple times since. He will again be up for parole in 2026, NorthJersey.com reported earlier this month.
"No family member should have to go through that," Huttle said of the pain and suffering victims' families go through with every parole hearing.
Joan's Law is not retroactive. Rosemarie D'Alessandro will have to keep attending McGowan's parole hearings and fighting against his release.
But this is a fight she's been working on for more than 20 years, to make sure fewer and fewer parents have to do so, as the Daily Voice reported in August.
Her sons were with her in Trenton Wednesday as she addressed the full Assembly about the amendment.
"It's a big step toward the goal," Michael D'Alessandro said. "It was good to be there, and it's good to see them listening to what the people want."
He was born seven years after Joan was taken from his parents.
John D'Alessandro said it was really special to be in the Capitol for the successful vote. He came into the D'Alessandro family two years after Michael.
"It's important to help these vulnerable teenagers," John D'Alessandro added. "This sends the message that crimes against any kid deserve the harshest penalty."
While Huttle added that she couldn't predict what either the state Senate or the governor would do, she believed they, too, would support this amendment.
Rosemarie D'Alessandro stressed her gratitude for all the work others have done.
"It's not about an 'I' thing," she said. "It's about the people coming together."
She thanked the bill's sponsors and all the citizens who helped bring attention to the issue.
She said many petition drives netted thousands of signatures, and people participated in letter-writing and calling campaigns. She has a similar strategy in mind for the next phase.
In a Facebook post, she noted that a good way for New Jerseyans to get involved is to call Sen. Nicholas Scutari at 908-587-0404. He's the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She suggests asking him to request that the bill, S607, be considered at the March 6 committee meeting, so that it's possible the law could be amended in time for the 20th anniversary of when Joan's Law was first passed -- on April 3.
In addition to working on victim's rights, Rosemarie D'Alessandro created the Joan Angela D'Alessandro Memorial Foundation -- Joan's Joy for short -- nearly 20 years ago.
It promotes child safety programs, advocates for victims' rights, and provides fun and educational opportunities for children who have been victimized.
"It is so good to see all the good coming out of the horrible thing that happened to Joan," Rosemarie D'Alessandro said. "I feel that she is around, like a white butterfly, and she is free and joyful and bringing that into society, with this legacy."