Three bronze plaques at the Monmouth County 9/11 Memorial in Atlantic Highlands were stolen last month and remain unaccounted for.

The act of vandalism at the memorial, which honors the 147 Monmouth County residents who died in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, sparked outrage — and now a New Jersey lawmaker is pushing a plan to increase the level of punishment for such activity.

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, said our laws are supposed to provide for escalating penalties commensurate with the behavior we’re trying to deter, “so if someone purposefully attacks or desecrates a monument or place of worship, the law should have the prosecutorial discretion to charge someone with a more serious offense.”

Under current law this type of desecration is considered a disorderly persons offense, but O'Scanlon's legislation, co-sponsored with Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth, would make it a fourth-degree crime.

“So you could have up 18 months in jail, but more importantly a fine of up to $10,000," O'Scanlon said. "We’re hopeful the deterrent value is what has the biggest impact. We’re prescribing a very appropriate level of escalation of punishment for this particularly heinous act.”

The punishment for a disorderly persons offense in New Jersey is currently up to six months in jail and a fine of not more than $1,000.

O’Scanlon said the kind of desecration that took place at the memorial is shocking and disgraceful, and cannot be tolerated.

“There’s a special place in Hell for someone who defaces a 9/11 memorial," he said. "I can’t send them to Hell, but I can make their life substantially unpleasant if they’re caught.”

He said penalties should be increased because the perpetrators knew what they were vandalizing.

“This was a direct attack on that memorial, and on the memory of those people that we lost," O’Scanlon said.

He said the message being sent by the proposed legislation is: “Don’t do it. Think twice. You should think more than twice about it and not commit the act in the first place.”

O’Scanlon just formally introduced the measure, so it is not clear yet which committee may consider it in the Upper House.

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