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‘Joan’s Law’ mom and ‘Jessica’s Law’ dad seek harsher sex offender restrictions in New Jersey

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST : Nationally acclaimed childrens’ advocate Mark Lunsford is coming to Bergen County on Tuesday to try and convince state officials to overcome their reluctance to adopt a version of “Jessica’s Law” — named after his slain daughter — which aims to keep sex offenders away from children after they’ve been released from prison.

Joan, Rosemarie and Jessica

Lunsford will be in Hillsdale, meeting with Rosemarie D‘Alessandro — whose daughter was raped and murdered by a neighbor in 1973, eventually leading to “Joan’s Law” — and members of the Joan Angela Foundation.

State Assembly members Robert Schroeder and Nancy Muñoz, who have actively pushed for child-protection legislation in Trenton, are also expected to attend.

The goal of the group, created in Joan’s name to help homeless, runaway and abused youngsters, is to finally get a version of “Jessica‘s Law” enacted in New Jersey, one of only six states that doesn’t have one.

“We can work together to pass this important child safety legislation in New Jersey,” said D‘Alessandro, who has not slowed her fight to protect children ever since she convinced lawmakers in Trenton 14 years ago to establish the anti-sex offender measure known as “Joan‘s Law.”

Mark Lunsford (CNN PHOTO)

The “Jessica’s Law” bill, which has languished in Trenton more than five years, would require lower-tier sex offenders to wear GPS devices on their ankles for five years after they’re freed, and for those deemed more dangerous to wear them for life.

This, D’Alessandro said, would help law enforcement track them.

New Jersey also would be required to mail sex offender registration forms at least twice per year, at random times, to verify registrants’ addresses. Any registrants who did not respond within 10 days would have to be considered non-compliant.

Those who commit sex crimes against children under 12 would receive mandatory prison sentences of 25 years to life without parole, along with lifetime monitoring, under the proposal.

What’s more, those who knowingly harbor child sex offenders from the law would face stricter penalties, and municipalities would be enabled to establish “child protection zones” where sex offenders cannot cause danger to children.

“Jessica’s Law” is named for Lunsford’s 9-year-old daughter, who was raped, tortured and then murdered by a child molester and rapist in Florida.

Lunsford, a single father, had raised Jessica since she was 1.  Her February 2005 disappearance unleashed a nationwide manhunt for the youngster who became known as “the girl in the pink hat.”

More than three weeks later, searchers found her remains — 150 yards from home. She had been raped and buried alive.

Her killer, John Couey, was a registered sex offender who had flown under the radar.

Since Couey’s conviction, and subsequent death sentence, Mark Lunsford has become a nationally recognized spokesman for tougher laws governing regarding those who prey on, and harm, children. He has worked with the U.S. Marshals Service tracking down absconded sexual predators/offenders, and in 2005 won the “Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award” for outstanding public service.

Rosemarie D’Alessandro has been equally active, but on more of a local level. Her daughter, a vivacious, 7-year-old Brownie Scout, was going door-to-door selling Girl Scout cookies on April 19, 1973 (Holy Thursday) when a high school chemistry teacher who lived in the neighborhood sexually assaulted and murdered her.

Her body was found on Easter in Harriman State Park.

When Joseph McGowan became eligible for parole 20 years later, D’Alessandro organized a letter writing, green ribbon campaign that led officials to deny Joseph McGowan parole. But she didn’t stop there.

The very idea that a child murderer could be released from prison created the idea of “Joan’s Law,” which the state Legislature adopted in 1997 — denying the possibility of parole to offenders who murder while committing a sex crime.

A federal version of the law followed in 1998. New York State adopted its own in 2004.

D’Alessando also convinced New Jersey lawmakers to eliminate what had been a two-year statute of limitations on suing murderers.

McGowan’s sentence made him parole-eligible after serving 14 years. Because “Joan’s Law” is not retroactive, he came up for parole — and was denied — four times.

So D’Alessandro’s group gathered 80,000 signatures, along with 7,000 letters, and held two rallies at the State House in Trenton in 2009, after which the Parole Board added 18 years before McGowan (now 64) will again be eligible for release.

What strikes you most about D’Alessandro — who received the Attorney General’s Special Courage Award in 2004 — is her tireless dedication to helping others.

It’s why she’s invited Lundsford to her home tomorrow night.


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