July 29, 2004 – Appearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, Attorney General Iver Stridiron did what many other department heads have done at their fiscal year 2005 budget hearings: He said he would live with the governor's proposed appropriation, asked for no further reductions, noted that his agency is understaffed and pleaded for a lump-sum budget.
The Justice Department's proposed $26.2 million budget is down by $1.8 million from FY 2004. Stridiron said he would be "creative" in dealing with the cut. The department, which has 396 employees, also will receive a $4.38 million in federal funds, he said.
He stressed that a lump-sum budget would allow him and his "fellow agency heads to creatively utilize what we anticipate will be reduced resources."
In answer to Sen. Lorraine Berry's questioning about a current "crime wave," Stridiron said he doesn't see one. "Crime is cyclical," he said. "Right now, it is in an upsurge. The escalating crime is due to the economy, especially on St. Croix. We need to work more with children and families, and we need more cops on the beat, which would deter drive-by shootings and random house break-ins."
Sen. Ronald Russell, a lawyer, said he knows of no government agency that is not understaffed. He asked Stridiron how he could successfully prosecute crime with the number of lawyers he has. Stridiron had said in his prepared remarks that he needs at least six more lawyers to cover all bases.
Russell asked what the prosecution's conviction rate is, quoting a statistic given by Public Defender Harold Willocks in testimony Thursday morning: "The public defender says his office's win ratio is 75 to 80 percent, compared to the national average of 25 to 50 percent," Russell said. "What's the prosecution doing?"
Stridiron and Alva Swan, chief deputy attorney general, appeared incredulous at the figure. "If they're winning 80 percent, our jails should be empty," Stridiron said. Swan said the Attorney General's Office has a success rate of about 87 percent.
"I don't know what method they use to get their figures," Swan said. "We have close to 600 in jail, and I don't know how many awaiting trial, on probation or on home detention." He added, "We must be doing something right."
Willocks had said that his figures referred only to cases that went to trial and did not include plea bargains, which are common and often include incarceration. Efforts to reach him for further comment on Thursday morning were unsuccessful.
Stridiron added: "The prosecution of crimes by assistant attorneys general and special prosecutors hired through federal grants accounts for our overwhelming successful conviction rate at no extra cost to the government."
Also within the Justice Department are the Solicitor General's Office, the Corrections Bureau and the Paternity and Child Support Division. Paternity and Child Support serves a client population of 11,984 households, or about 26,000 people, Stridiron said, and the division has an average child support payout of $843,690 a month, or $10.1 million yearly.
Corrections has hired 24 new officers, which should end an "unacceptable overtime situation" at the Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix, Stridiron said.
Asked by senators what happened in the recent "sick-out" of Corrections officers, Stridiron said radios and a lack of equipment contributed to it, but mainly it was a cutback in overtime realized by rearranging work shifts. He said one officer with a salary of $30,000 collected another $35,000 in overtime last year.
John Trawick, Corrections director, said his officers did a "fantastic" job during the sick-out. Russell asked if Trawick felt the prisoners and the prison were "safe." Trawick said he never has enough officers. The ratio is about 60 inmates to one officer, he said, whereas in the States it's about 22 to 30 inmates per officer.
"The bathrooms are too small for the officers to urinate, we don't have enough radios and the phones don't always work," he said. "These are the cards I'm dealt." He added: "Give me $1 million and everything would be fine."
Berry asked Stridiron about the relationship of his office with the Narcotics Strike Force, which has taken considerable flak. Police Commissioner Elton Lewis told the committee on Wednesday morning that he "won't let any of my officers participate in any investigation with the NSF because of credibility and integrity issues everyone here is aware of."
Stridiron's reply: "Our relationship with the NSF is good. We work with them. Period."
A chronic problem facing prosecutors, Stridiron said, is "complacency — a lack of cooperation from our residents. Unfortunately the 'Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil' adage is prevalent in the V.I." He noted the local witness-protection program, "where we successfully have removed residents … out of the territory and out of harm's way."
However, the protection program is plagued by paperwork delays, Stridiron said. A voucher must be prepared by Justice and then processed by the Finance Department before a check is cut. And, he said, secrecy and confidentiality are threatened by the time-consuming process.
He said he has on occasion used his own funds because "if we have to get a person out of here, we have to do it right away." He recommended that the Attorney General's Crime Prevention Prosecution Fund be moved from the Finance Department to a special bank account where his office could access it directly.
Stridiron asked the senators to help him streamline the witness-protection program. "We urge you to encourage citizen participation in crime fighting," he said.
Committee members attending the afternoon session were Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the chair; and Sens. Roosevelt David, Louis Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Russell. Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste was excused. Berry, who also was present, is not a member of the committee.
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