June 3, 2004 – If something isn't done about the territory's crime problem, residents will take matters into their own hands, Sen. Emmett Hansen II said Thursday at a meeting of the Senate Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee held at the St. John Legislature Building.
But "it's already this way," Iris Kern, St. John Safety Zone executive director, said.
Hansen was particularly upset at the number of criminal cases that do not get tried, because the Attorney General's Office drops charges or plea bargains before they go to trial.
"I have screamed my political voice hoarse. You have to go to trial," Hansen said.
He said people bent on committing crime know that their case will be thrown out or the penalty will be so light that they'll spend little time behind bars.
The Attorney General's Office often cites the cost of prosecuting as the reason for dropping a case, Hansen said, but price should not be a factor. He also said all cases should be prosecuted fairly, not based on the accused's "last name."
Kern said judges dismiss "case after case" in which people have been accused of using unlicensed firearms to commit crimes.
Hansen, calling it a life-or-death situation, said people carrying firearms expect to commit a crime. "There's only one thing you can do with a gun," he said. "Shoot bullets, and bullets kill." He predicted that the territory's attorney general and judges will someday be elective positions because people want a more responsive judicial system.
Tuesday's shooting death of a 19-year-old St. Croix Education Complex student on the campus at the end of the school day was a hot topic of discussion. Police say the 17-year-old Central High School student who has been charged with first-degree murder fired a sawed-off shotgun through his book bag at the victim in an apparent attempt to settle a fight that had begun over the weekend.
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd said that coddling young criminals is no answer to the problem. "When they go and bring a firearm to school means they don't care," he said. "They have no respect for anybody."
Kern was the only St. John resident to offer comments on the crime aspects of the 222-page Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Omnibus Act of 2004 that was the subject of the committee hearing. She testified in favor of Berry's proposed civilian police review board but urged that its makeup include at least one representative of a victim advocacy agency. "I recommend this because of the degree of persons with whom we interface and the number of complaints that get channeled through our offices," she said.
According to a release from the Legislature, Kern also recommend that the omnibus bill be amended to provide for:
– Federal firearms language to bring the territory in step with the rest of the nation.
– Bail set legislatively to impact on dangerous perpetrators.
– Mandatory training for the judiciary in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault.
– Mandatory training in the same areas for family law mediators.
– Separation of the Corrections Bureau from the V.I. Justice Department.
She also suggested that domestic violence issues be taken into consideration in deciding child custody cases.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, who introduced the bill and chairs the committee, had invited Police Commissioner Elton Lewis to testify at the meeting, but he is off island. She also invited Barbara McIntosh, administrator of the Police Department's Office of Highway Safety, and Lawrence Olive, director of the department's Motor Vehicle Bureau, but neither appeared.
She invited McIntosh and Olive to testify because one provision of the omnibus bill concerns low-speed vehicles, popularly called electric cars. They are small, energy-efficient vehicles with a top speed of less than 35 mph, according to St. Thomas resident Doug White, who testified Thursday. He acquired his first GEM electric car four years ago and has been trying ever since to convince the government to let him register it so he can drive it on the roads of St. John.
White took Berry for a test drive before the hearing convened, taking her up to the top of Jacob's Ladder, a high point outside of Cruz Bay. "I was very impressed with the car," Berry was quoted as saying in the release issued later . "It has quite a bit of power."
At the hearing Berry said she has mixed feelings about allowing the cars on the road, however. While they seem suitable for St. John, she said, that is not the case on the other islands, where there are stretches where higher-speed driving is the norm. "Can we make an exception for St. John?" she asked.
White certainly hopes so. He said that the cars are inexpensive — with a price tag of around $10,000 — and quiet, run on solar power and take up about half the parking space of a conventional vehicle. Lack of adequate parking is a major issue in Cruz Bay.
"It all makes perfect sense," Hansen said.
White said Lewis wrote him in support of the idea, but Attorney General Iver Stridiron is opposed.
White, Kern and a handful of people supporting the electric car provision were the only residents who attended the hearing.
Berry, Hansen and Liburd were the only committee members present. The other members, Sens. Carlton Dowe, David Jones, Shawn-Michael Malone and Ronald Russell, were absent.
Berry said she will hold one more hearing on her bill, June 18 on St. Thomas. The full Senate is expected to take up the issue on June 28, she said.
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