May 2, 2006 – The people of St. John, particularly the women and children of St. John, do not receive equal justice under law. Because of the size of St. John, and the continuation of the "St. Thomas/St. John District", cases requiring prosecution and the courts require that St. John women and children travel to St. Thomas to avail themselves of the so-called system of Justice. For a case of Domestic Violence, for example, a woman must travel to St. Thomas, at her own expense, to file for a temporary order. Too often, she must return either later that day or the next to pick up her copy of the order, and then return the following week for the hearing to obtain a permanent order. This entails three trips to St. Thomas, at a minimum cost of three days pay, thirty dollars in ferry fees and at least thirty more dollars in taxi fees. When possible, our agency, The Safety Zone, attempts to provide that transportation, thanks to the generosity of Boyson Inc., but, too often, our shortage of personnel make that impossible. Additionally, for the last several years, the court system has been the beneficiary of a limited amount of funding which was identified to provide teleconferencing potential between these two islands and eliminate the need for this excessive travel as a barrier to service. Despite the fact that these funds were earmarked for this purpose, teleconferencing has yet to be initiated. Why?
Further, until sometime last year, a prosecuting attorney, an assistant attorney general, was housed in the Cruz Bay police station one day a week, allowing all St. John persons who wished to pursue cases which were not being vigorously pursued by the police to initiate such action. Without any notice to the public, this attorney was removed from this position, and no other was assigned to replace him. Once again, in order to pursue such cases, St. John citizens must now take another day off work and visit the Attorney General's office in St. Thomas. For many, the time and expense involved discourage legal recourse. Equal justice under law is, once again, not attained. Equal justice becomes a phantom concept, available only for those who can afford regular trips between islands. The issue of income disparity and selective prosecution must be addressed.
The citizens of St. John deserve more than they are receiving at the hands of government officials. They deserve to know the disposition of cases undertaken by the police. They deserve answers to questions. They deserve to know when teleconferencing between islands will be initiated and why it has taken so long to be put into operation. They deserve to know why the assistant attorney general was removed from St. John and why he has not been replaced. If he is to be replaced, we deserve to know when that will occur.
The concept of equal justice is not one to be taken lightly. It means justice for all, irrespective of income, geographic locale, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation. This does not presently exist for us here in the Virgin Islands. Are we capable of providing this for all people on St. John, or must we wait for another Federally appointed person to step in and confirm our inability to provide for our own? Locally appointed and elected officials, including the new attorney general, must be accessible, responsive, and willing to work with others to solve the problems within the territory.
The police cannot do their job without the help of advocates. The prosecutors cannot function without the police. The Judges are dependent upon competent, prepared and vigorous prosecutors and defense attorneys. Denial of problems does not help them to go away. We are not required to be best friends with one another, but professional respect and understanding of teamwork are requisite to effecting change. We must work together if the change necessary to provide equal justice is to be more than empty words. St. John deserves better.
Editor's note: Iris Kern, Ph.D. is the executive director of The Safety Zone on St. John.
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