Aiming for Sterner Penalties to Deter Threats in NJ to Religious, Other Groups

Assemblyman Gordon Johnson says new legislation sends message that ‘hate-based intimidation will not be tolerated’
Credit: New York National Guard
Members of New York National Guard bomb disposal squad

Bomb threats and other reported false public alarms aimed at religious targets or certain other groups would become bias crimes carrying stiffer penalties in New Jersey under a bill prompted by a wave of bomb threats against Jewish centers, temples and schools.

Eight Jewish institutions in New Jersey received bomb threats in early 2017, as did more than 100 schools and houses of worship across the country, prompting evacuations and creating fear at a time when anti-Semitic incidents and white nationalism were beginning to increase.

In response, Assembly members hope their legislation (A-724) will provide something of a deterrent. The bill, which cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee last Thursday, recharacterizes as a bias crime the crime of creating a false public alarm to intimidate an individual or group because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin or ethnicity.

“This sends a strong message that hate-based intimidation will not be tolerated,” said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), one of the bill’s sponsors. “We want to make it clear that these types of bigoted threats will not be tolerated in our State.”

New Jersey has seen a steep rise in hate crimes over the last few years. State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced earlier this year that preliminary data for 2019 showed a one-year jump of 65% in reported bias incidents, for a total of 944. But officials say they believe that is only a fraction of the number of offenses actually committed, as many hate crimes go unreported.

New Jersey has taken several steps to deal with the rise in bias incidents. Last spring, Grewal issued new guidelines for law enforcement to follow in handling complaints, which included an expanded definition of hate offenses.

Existing law

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 to commit certain offenses against people due to race, religion, sexuality and all the other categories covered. These offenses currently include terroristic threats, assault, murder, and arson.

Creating a false public alarm aimed at those protected by the law against discrimination would be added to that list of offenses under the legislation. A false public alarm is defined as a person reporting or warning about an impending fire, explosion, crime, catastrophe, emergency or other incident knowing that the report is false and likely to cause an evacuation of a building, place of assembly or facility of public transport or otherwise cause public alarm.

“False threats like these are psychologically damaging and also have the potential to cause physical harm if they incite panic,” said Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), another bill sponsor.  “When you add a biased motivation to the mix, they become damaging to the community at large. No one should have to live in fear simply for going to their house of worship or their community center.”

Bias intimidation crimes are graded one degree higher than they otherwise would be considered. Currently, depending on the circumstances, creating a false public alarm can range from a fourth-degree to a first-degree crime. The bill would elevate that to a minimum crime of the third degree, which carries a penalty of at least three years imprisonment, a fine of up to $15,000 or both. If deemed a first-degree crime, the penalty would range from 15 to 30 years.

“A country founded on the notion of freedom of religion must do everything in its power to protect that sacrament,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Bergen, Passaic), another bill sponsor. “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.”

More security

The 2017 threats led to increased patrols at houses of worship and prompted the state to provide more grants to nonprofit and religious institutions to beef up their security. In New Jersey, the targeted Jewish centers were in Edison, West Orange, Cherry Hill, Livingston and Tenafly, where Kaplen JCC on the Palisades received threats on three separate dates. An Israeli American ultimately was indicted in April 2017 in connection with the threats.

“These bias-based threats had a profound impact on a number of our communities,” said Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), another bill sponsor. “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 sends a clear, strong message.”

The New Jersey State Bar Association supports the bill, which cleared the committee unanimously and now awaits action by the full Assembly.

This is one of a number of measures introduced to deal with concerns over security at houses of worship. Also pending in the Legislature, though yet to get a hearing, is A-1255, which would allow the governing body of a religious institution to designate one member to essentially serve as a security guard and carry a firearm to protect the congregation. The bill specifically cites two recent mass shootings at churches — the November 2017 attack that killed 26 at a Baptist Church in Texas and the October 2018 shooting that killed 11 at a synagogue in Pennsylvania —  as proof of the need for the legislation.

Last year, the state expanded a program that provides grants of as much as $50,000 to eligible nonprofit centers, houses of worship and schools  to hire security personnel and buy such equipment as security cameras, card access readers, window blast film, fencing and bollards to enhance security and combat violent actions.