March 20, 2005 The instructions for "growing your own criminal, " as suggested at a colloquium on crime Saturday, are: "conceive a male child in an impoverished home with a partner who is a convicted criminal; be sure to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes during pregnancy; reject the child early and often, and make sure to keep a gun in the house." To further guarantee raising a criminal, have a stepfather or surrogate parent in the house, who is also a convicted criminal.
These factors, according to Kathleen Dudemaine, a professor of psychology at the University of the Virgin Islands, are the fundamental basis for turning out children who turn to lives of crime. The event, sponsored by the University of the Virgin Islands and the V.I. Police Department, was teleconferenced between St. Thomas and St. Croix and broadcast live on radio station WSTA.
The colloquium, which was conceived and organized by Frank L. Mills, professor of social sciences and director of UVI's Eastern Caribbean Center, and Malik Sékou, also a social science professor, was the first in 11 years. The last one, held in 1994, was organized by social scientist Simon Jones-Hendrickson, who was one of more than a dozen presenters at Saturday's day-long event.
One difference this time was that half of the presenters were from the Police Department. The 1994 colloquium was strictly an academic exercise, according to Mills.
The discussion, which began at 9 a.m. and continued until after 5 p.m., was intended to provide a better understanding of the root causes of crime and criminal behavior and to search for solutions to the territory's burgeoning crime problems.
"Once it gets to the Police Department it's already too late," Novelle Francis Jr., territorial police chief, said, echoing a repeated theme, that prevention was by far the most effective cure for crime.
Francis and his colleagues in the Police Department were the more passionate of the presenters.
"Crime accounts for more death, more injury, more loss of property than any natural disaster," Sgt. Thomas Hannah, police spokesman, said.
He said 10 percent of V.I. residents can be expected to become victims of crime every year; 3 percent will be violent crimes.
But that is based on reported crimes. Hannah said 47 percent of crime committed in the territory perhaps more goes unreported.
Jones-Henderickson said by not reporting crimes, Virgin Islanders are "creating a long-term culture of crime."
But the idea of a culture of crime seems to go deeper. Sékou, during a break, said, "This culture accepts crime."
Francis told a story of arresting a minor at an athletic shoe store for stealing. When the juvenile's mother arrived, she "berated the police for arresting him." The juvenile went on with his criminal activities and was eventually convicted of homicide for slashing the throat of a taxi driver.
In another vivid example, Detective Maria Colon-Petersen said when police arrived at the home of a juvenile accused of burglary, they found the child's mother watching the stolen television saying her son had bought it for her cheap from someone.
Petersen sees that scenario as one good reason why parents should be held accountable for the acts of their minor children. "Fine them," she said.
Petersen, who has spent nine years in juvenile investigations, also thinks the age at which a minor can be sent to the Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix needs to be lower.
"I've had 12-year-olds tell me, 'There's nothing you can do except release me back to my parents because I'm too young.'" Currently a minor must be 14 to be sent to rehabilitation. "They laugh in our face," Petersen said, referring to the group of juveniles she routinely deals with that are as young as 8-years-old.
She also thinks bail must be set in family court for minors. She said bail for grand larceny for an adult is $35,000. There is no bail for a minor. There is also no jury. It is solely up to the judge to determine guilt or innocence and then decide on the punishment.
Detective Eugene Alcendor was equally passionate in his delivery. "It's not easy to convince young people to work for $5 an hour when they can make a lot more money selling drugs," he said.
Unemployment, poverty, lack of adequate recreational facilities, single parent homes, he said, send youth into "a world of drug dealers and violence." They are lured to a life of crime by chrome hubcaps and gold, Alcendor said.
Growing up with a negative view of education in a poor family structure leads to "pain and anger which one day surfaces leaving them incarcerated."
He asked, "Where is the intervention?"
Lt. Glenn Awong sees a "nonchalant view of crime" in the community as another disturbing trend that exacerbates and supports criminal activity.
He said he was listening to a radio talk show around the time that Police Officer Cuthbert Chapman was shot multiple times during an attempted robbery at the Wendy's restaurant on St. Croix; the caller said of the killers, according to Awong, "wha' do you want da' man to do, he gotta' eat." People are desensitized, Awong said. "There is no longer any shock value," and added, "Parents excuse children's anti-social behavior. Television and the hood have become the surrogate parent."
Awong minced no words in tracing the problems to societal attitudes. He said the Virgin Islands was set up to control its own destiny, but as the reins were handed over, a "welfare mentality" developed in the government that spilled over into the community. "Easy come, easy go" was the attitude about the money flowing from the federal government into the territory.
He said, "We could have been a model of a thriving black community," but instead, "Our opportunities were squandered."
Awong said the territory has a deteriorating infrastructure and high rates of teen pregnancy, school dropouts and HIV/AIDS. "What does it say about our community?"
And, he warned, "The days of the federal government throwing money at the colony to keep it quiet are over."
"We have fallen away from our core values," he said, adding that "on a good day white collar crime will solicit a slap on the wrist." He further warned, "The acceptance of any crime, even in the judiciary … sends a message that it is okay.
"The traditional idea of crime being a police matter just won't do."
Despite Sen. Lorraine L. Berry's admonishment in her opening remarks, "Please don't tell us poverty is the root of crime," that is exactly what several of the experts that included psychologists, sociologists, economists, criminologists and police officers identified as one of the major contributing factors in criminal behavior. But it was far from the only factor. Drug use, hopelessness, feelings of insecurity, lack of education, children having children, cultural acceptance of crime, lack of recreational facilities for youth, the disappearance of diversionary programs, and greed also have a place in the crime picture drawn Saturday.
Assistant social science professor Sunday Odezah, in explaining his theory of using spirituality to counter white collar crime, said self-interest and greed were the motivators in white collar crime. He said people who commit embezzlement and fraud and intentionally misuse funds have "no love for the employee, no love for the community, no love for anyone."
Odezah spoke mostly about national white collar crimes because, he said, "I did all I could to get that information [statistics and details on the territory's white collar crime] in the V.I.; I did not get it. "
Where violent crime is concerned, Dudem
aine said perpetrators often have anti-social personality disorders. "They don't make bonds with people or the community," she said. "They lack empathy or remorse." She said they suffer from chronic under-arousal, which she said had been described as, "They murder people as casually as they smoke a cigarette."
She said biologically it has been found that people with this disorder often "lack frontal lobe tissue, the part that says, 'Don't do that.'" Dudemaine said the condition has been linked to "impoverished homes and parents with anti-social tendencies." She also said it develops in children who have lost a parent due to abandonment or divorce and those who have been subjected to" inconsistent or impulsive corporal punishment" physical abuse. She said the tendency toward anti-social behavior did not appear necessarily in children who lost a parent to death.
Recidivism was another concern addressed by most of the sociologists and police. Francis described a juvenile offender who had been arrested 34 times.
Again, living in a household with others involved in criminal activity surfaced as a big factor in recidivism. Mills said "an offender who has been arrested and lives in a household where a relative has been charged with a criminal offense is seven times more likely to become a recidivist when compared to another offender who does not live in such a household."
Other factors found in young people's criminal behavior, Mills said, were sexual activity, truancy, trouble controlling anger and being forced into having sex when not wanting to.
Mills also pointed to the availability of guns as leading to much more serious crime problems.
"Children are rather poor at resolving disputes verbally, as evidenced by their constant pushing and fighting," he said. "With the availability of guns, that pushing and fighting often escalates into shooting."
From strictly the economist's point of view, crime is an opportunistic event that is weighed by the cost versus the payoff, according to Hosanna Solomon, professor of economics.
Perception Versus Reality
Daniel Matarangas-King, counsel for the VIPD, said politics is driven by the community and the community often has a mistaken perception about what is going on in a courtroom or behind closed doors.
King said the community becomes frustrated because "we all know who the criminals are, but we don't have enough to prove reasonable doubt" in court. He said it is pointless to waste the public funds prosecuting cases that cannot be won. Further, he said, "Defense attorneys will use everything they can to get their clients off, including muddying the waters of what is reasonable doubt and what is any doubt."
While using statistics to compare the V.I.'s crime rate to other places is common, Mills said this can be misleading. With a population of about 50,000 people in each district and statistics elsewhere that are based on per capita baselines of 100,000, comparing the V.I. favorably or unfavorably is not statistically valid, he said.
Sékou was outspoken in his condemnation of tabloid journalism, which he said added to the skewing of reality. "Some of our media have become … yellow journalism," he said. And in a community that he said has an "appetite for roogadoo and strumo," the perception is different from the reality. "We love scenes, he said, "We don't want to hear the boring, plain facts."
Both Petersen and King spent time explaining how the criminal justice system works.
"The Senate makes the laws that we enforce," Petersen said. But the real process of adjudicating crimes "starts with calling 911," she said. Then, after "probable cause" is established, an arrest can be made. After that, she said, it is up to the Office of the Attorney General to decide whether to prosecute.
King said one often hears people complaining about suspects who are arrested being "out on the street the next day." He explained that after an investigation leads to an arrest, the suspect is advised of his rights and bail is set. If the suspect makes bail, the law requires that they must be released.
Only in cases where they are proven to be a menace to society or a flight risk, can bail be denied, King said.
King also explained that cases of domestic violence are heard in family court, which is "a civil process," he said. "Then it's up to the AG to determine if criminal charges should be brought."
King was vehemently opposed to treating juveniles as adults in most cases. He said they could either be rehabilitated in the youth center or "trained to be professional criminals in jail."
He said the transfer laws and mandatory sentencing were "building generations of hopelessness."
He said once convicted as adults, juveniles were "labeled forever." They are unable to "get a job or serve in the military." Once labeled, he said, they become hopeless. "Hopeless they will do whatever they have to do, including crime."
King said, "We have lost focus to the Republican ideology 'I'm being tough on crime.' It's not working."
As far as the perception of corruption in the Police Department itself, King said there were only "a few bad apples" and "one by one they are being weeded out. If we didn't get you yet, we'll get you soon," he said.
"Educate so perception doesn't crush reality, " King said.
Dudemaine said "intense early intervention" can help with at-risk children, those that are neglected and abused. She said "accessible resources for at-risk youth and families" are needed. "We need to be pro-active, not reactive in terms of preventing crime."
Mills said organizations involved with children's behavioral issues need to "take a page from the highly successful risk-focused approaches that have been pioneered by public health professionals." He said, "They have done this by seeking to convince individuals to reduce or eliminate identified risk factors such as smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol or consumption of high-fat foods, at the same time enhancing protective factors such as regular exercise and balanced diets."
Petersen said she wants to see juvenile offenders named publicly, but King pointed out that a law already on the books says once adjudicated they can be named, along with their parents.
Police Officer Bridget Conow, who is special assistant to Deputy Chief Angelo Hill on St. John, said early childhood programs work well in thwarting criminal behaviors. McGruff, the safety dog that visits schools in the territory, is one program she feels "really works."
The Weed and Seed program, SAD [Students Against Destructive Behavior], COPS [Community Oriented Policing] and the Neighborhood Watch Program all work, Conow said. "We have to be the eyes and ears for each other," she said.
That's not so easy. Francis said that particularly in the housing communities, people are reluctant to be part of neighborhood watch programs, and fear reprisal if they talk about what they might know or may have seen.
"Give judges back the ability to use discretion; judges should be allowed to deviate from some mandatory laws … if they can articulate their reasons," King said.
Other suggestions: more resources for mentoring and diversionary programs and more parental involvement. As to parental involvement, King said, "Everybody says it, but nobody pays attention."
Surprisingly little emphasis was placed directly on money or lack of it as either the solution or the problem, though it was implicit in the discussion. Police Commissioner Elton Lewis mentioned at the beginning of the day that the department had experienced and is facing further dramatic cuts
in federal funding.
Francis had a simplistic solution, guaranteed to achieve prosecution in many instances and take criminals off the street, which in itself is the best solution, he said. "We need people to come forward."
Berry was the only St. Thomas senator who stayed for the entire conference. Sen. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion was in attendance all day on St. Croix. Sen. Roosevelt David showed up for part of the day and a representative from Sen. Louis P. Hill's office was in attendance on St. Thomas. No representatives from the Attorney General's Office were present, other than King, who was there at the behest of the Police Department, though they were invited, Mills said.
Summing up much of the day's discussion, Petersen said, "Ask yourself when you go home tonight, 'Is it the police's problem that crime is rampant, or is it my problem that I am not helping solve the problem?'"
The program was moderated by Henry Smith, vice provost of the St. Thomas campus, and Aletha Baumann, social science professor on St. Croix.
Other presenters included Professors Adelee Belle-Barry, Ededet Inama and Sgt. Annette Raimer.
Jennifer Jackson, chancellor of the St. Croix campus, made the closing remarks by recalling being a victim of a burglary and noting the many ways in which the event changed her life permanently. "It's not about the loss" of material things, she said, "It's about the quality of life."
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