With threats against houses of worship and community centers on the rise in New Jersey, a proposal is moving forward to stiffen the penalties for creating a false public alarm.

A measure sponsored by Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, D-Bergen, calls for a false public alarm made against any group of people for any reason to be considered a crime of bias intimidation in New Jersey.

The proposed law would make someone guilty of creating a false public alarm if they initiate or circulate any kind of a report or warning of an impending explosion, disaster, fire or any other type of emergency incident that they know is false and baseless.

Johnson said past threats made to synagogues in the Garden State, including one in Tenafly in his district, convinced him to address the issue.

“For some reason, I don’t know why it is, hate is out there. Now it’s being openly displayed," he said last week.

A person can be found guilty of bias intimidation in New Jersey if they commit, attempt to commit, conspire or threaten to take a hostile action against an individual or group because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

Currently creating a false public alarm, depending on the circumstances, ranges from a fourth- to a first-degree crime. But bias intimidation is considered a more serious crime by one degree, so the penalties will be stiffer if someone is convicted of an underlying offense.

Someone is convicted of a fourth-degree crime could face up to 18 months in jail and a $10,000 fine. For a third-degree crime, the punishment would be three to five years in prison and a potential fine of $15,000.

Johnson said even when someone makes a threat that turns out to be false, people become panicked and that can sometimes have a negative effect.

“There’s still a threat to those who are there," he said. "They still are being intimidated by the people calling in and it’s just something they should not have to go through.”

He said stiffening the penalty for making a false threat hopefully sends a strong message to people who might think about doing this.

“We’re going to go after you because it’s not acceptable behavior for us in New Jersey or us as Americans. We want the individuals who feel they can make these calls or make these threats, we want them to know that if you’re caught doing that you’re going to pay the price for it.”

The legislation, passed by the Assembly last week, will now be considered by the state Senate.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com