Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Assemblyman Gordon Johnson

Threats called in to Jewish community centers in New Jersey and in many other communities around the country last winter created fear, evacuations, program cancellations and general unease in a sector of the community used to going about its business quietly. In Trenton, a bill sponsored by Assembly Democrats Gordon Johnson, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Tim Eustace, Gary Schaer and John McKeon to stiffen the penalties for creating a false public alarm in light of the string of bomb threats that affected the Jewish community was approved Thursday by the General Assembly.

“This sends a strong message that hate-based intimidation will not be tolerated,” said Johnson (Bergen). Johnson told The Jewish Link that when threats were being called in to Jewish community centers, including the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and the JCC in Scotch Plains, they were being called “specifically because they were Jewish organizations,” and on that basis, they should qualify as a bias crime punishable to a higher degree. The first series of hoax threats were received last January 9, when 16 JCCs nationwide were targeted, including the Kaplen JCC. Over the next several weeks, threats were made to approximately 100 JCCs in the same or similar manner.

The bill, A-1027, would add creating a false public alarm to the list of underlying offenses for bias intimidation. The legislation grades a bias crime one degree higher than the perpetrator’s most serious underlying crime. Therefore, the bill will automatically heighten the penalties for creating a false public alarm if it is found to be part of bias intimidation. In cases where the underlying crime is of the first degree, for example, the defendant, upon conviction, may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment between 15 and 30 years, with a presumptive term of 20 years.

Michael Kadar, a then-19-year-old Israeli-American, was indicted last April in connection with the threats, though the Justice Department reported in August that he was a paid intermediary—that he had advertised his services for making threats on the dark web, and was paid for his work by multiple clients. Separately, Juan Thompson, a former journalist, pled guilty last June to making eight of the threats in an effort to frame a former girlfriend. Neither of these alleged perpetrators were caught before the state ramped up patrol efforts at JCCs and houses of worship and increased grant money to help nonprofits and religious institutions beef up security. The bias hoaxes shed light on the importance of emergency preparedness as well as the deep problems associated with repeated bias threats that affect the ability of schools or nonprofits to operate effectively.

Regarding emergency preparedness, Johnson noted that the current budget covers some aid on a per-student basis in non-public schools—for security as well as for transportation, technology and nursing care. However, JCCs that might run daycare programs for young children or afterschool activities have previously not had access to comparable state funding. “So last year a line item was added, a million dollars was set aside for requests for physical security, that can be applied for by nonprofits like JCCs and NAACP programs,” he said.

It’s difficult to talk only about threats and bias intimidation when school safety has been front and center and a national conversation over the last week. In light of violence like the school shooting last week in Florida, Johnson said New Jersey is one of the states that has stricter gun laws. Handguns and long guns are banned in New Jersey as are assault rifles, he noted. “But you can go to Pennsylvania or Virginia, and you can bring it back to your own state, unlicensed. Gun owners make a good point—that 99 percent of these crimes are done by non-legal gun owners. These are people who bought guns illegally,” he said.

“Even though we are a strict gun-law state we still have crimes committed by handguns, which means guns are still coming from the outside,” Johnson said. “It’s a matter of needing more work done at the national level to improve general safety,” he said.

Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle (Bergen) addressed the problems caused by bias threats as well, describing the fear that gripped JCCs in New Jersey last year. “False threats like these are psychologically damaging… No one should have to live in fear simply for going to their house of worship or their community center,” she said.

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 the immediate commission of certain offenses with, among other things, the purpose of intimidating an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.

The bill was approved unanimously, 72-0-0, and now heads to the Senate for further consideration.

By Elizabeth Kratz