New Jersey Signs into Law Jessica Lunsford Act, Tightening Restrictions on Convicted Sex Offender

On May 15, New Jersey became one of the latest states to adopt the Jessica Lunsford Act, which increases the penalties for individuals convicted of sexually assaulting a child younger than 13 years of age. Gov. Chris Christie signed the Act during a ceremonial bill signing, at which Mark Lunsford, Jessica Lunsford’s father, was present. Jessica Lunsford was a nine-year-old-girl who was abducted, raped, and buried alive by John Couey, a convicted sex offender. Couey was later sentenced to death but died of cancer before the sentence was carried out.

The new legislation places tighter restrictions on sex offenders, and increases the mandatory minimum sentence to 25 years in prison, with no possibility of parole until 25 years have been served. In some cases, plea deals can gain sentences of no shorter than 15 years in prison. The Act did not alter the statute of limitations (how long victims or their representatives have to come forward) for reporting sex crimes, which still varies state by state.

The Jessica Lunsford Act has developed over the years with the help of Mark Lunsford, who became a child activist after his daughter’s death. Many states have enacted similar legislation, calling it Jessica’s Law. Now that New Jersey has enacted the law, only four states remain which have not yet enacted a version of the Jessica Lunsford Act.

“In the end, mandatory sentences that consist of extensive prison terms represent the most effective means of safeguarding our communities against sexual offenders from committing further acts of violence,” said Assemblyman Brian E. Rumpf, who co-sponsored the law along with several other representatives.

Nine years ago, in 2005, Jessica Lunsford was abducted from her home in Homosassa, Florida by 46-year-old John Couey. Couey kept Lunsford in his trailer over the weekend, repeatedly raping her in his bedroom. He then tricked her into getting into garbage bags, saying he would “take her home” if she did. He then buried her alive. Jessica’s body was found several weeks later, and the coroner ruled that she had died of suffocation within minutes of being buried. At the time, Couey had an extensive criminal record, which included a 1991 charge of fondling a 5-year-old. Couey was able to get out of jail for that offense early because the laws at the time were more lenient

“Enactment of this bipartisan initiative reinforces the zero-tolerance policy stance that must be maintained for child predators,” said Senator Christopher J. Connors, another co-signer to the Act.

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