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HomeNewsArchivesSenators Talk Crime; Nelson Floats Fine for Pot Users

Senators Talk Crime; Nelson Floats Fine for Pot Users

The schedule for the Senate hearing Friday was for a discussion on "the escalating violent crimes in the Virgin Islands,” though law enforcement officials were quick to point out that crime statistics – even for homicides – are down in the territory.

The hearing was held by the Senate’s Committee on Public Safety Homeland Security and Justice Friday morning in the Fritz E. Lawaetz Conference Room on St. Croix. No action or votes were taken because the hearing was not focused on a specific bill.

The wide-ranging discussion, often emotional, included such issues as parenting, the role of community, guns, gold sales, and drugs. Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson proposed a bill to decriminalize marijuana use in the territory.

Both Acting Police Commissioner Raymond Hyndman and Attorney General Vincent F. Frazer corrected the impression that crime is on the rise, pointing to statistics that show crime is down and arrests are up, although neither witness was satisfied.

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"While criminal activity will always be evident in any society, I am not sure that I would agree that we have an increase," Frazer said. "I believe the statistics may show the opposite. However, I agree that the incidents of homicide and other violent crime activity is distressing to us in our small communities."

Statistics presented by the police department bore out Frazer’s statement. Homicides hit record levels in 2009 and 2010, topping out at last year’s 66 for the territory. This year the number of homicides, though still high, is behind last year at the same time. Through August 2010, there had been 47 murders compared to 31 so far this year. That’s a 34 percent drop, more than one-third.

But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. In 2010 the U.S. Virgin Islands was the deadliest place in the United States, with an average of 60 homicides per 100,000 people. For that same year, New Orleans had the highest murder rate among U.S. cities with 28 deaths per 100,000 citizens. Even if there is not another murder in the territory this year, the V.I. is already right at that number.

And the nationwide average was only 5.2 murders per 100,000 citizens, far below the V.I. rate.

Hyndman said the department is continuing to fight drug trafficking in the territory, a battle that requires adapting and changing tactics as drug sellers change their approaches.

"While I cannot go into specific details about our drug interdiction strategies for obvious reasons, I can tell you that we have a dedicated team which is utilizing various techniques and strategies that have proven successful in their jurisdictions," Hyndman said. "The department recognizes there is a change in the current drug climate and is providing officers with specialized training and equipment to support their efforts."

A presentation from Jermaine Dennis of Speak the Word Ministries pointed the finger at fatherless families as a major condition leading to crime in the territory. Studies show that the children of single teenage mothers are at greater risk for later criminal behavior, because teen mothers monitor their children less and do not have the experience and training to consistently raise their children. Further, they are usually struggling just to support their child n the absence of any support from the father.

Children failing to behave properly or never learning how go on to have trouble at school, which leads to their alienation from the school community and their spending more time with similar outsiders. The result is a candidate ripe for recruiting into a gang, and a life of crime.

But Sen Nellie Rivera-O’Reilly took exception, saying sharply that it’s wrong to "blame" single mothers. Fathers have to step up, and the community needs to provide more resources when they don’t, she said. She also pointed to millions in unpaid child support, suggesting that could make a huge difference in the life of a child.

Nelson questioned why police spend so much time on crimes like simple possession of marijuana. Those resources could be used for fighting more serious crimes, and the fact is, he said, a large segment of the population does not find smoking marijuana to be a serious problem.

"What’s causing crime is lack of opportunity, lack of background and education to find job," he said.

Nelson said people sell drugs because there’s little else for them to do. And if the community didn’t buy the marijuana, they wouldn’t be able to sell it.

For that reason, he said he was exploring proposing a bill decriminalizing marijuana. A short time later a draft bill with his name on it circulated around the hearing room.

The bill notes that decriminalizing does not mean legalizing. Instead, the bill would reduce the penalties for usage or possession of two ounces or less, making it an offense punishable by a fine of $100.

Sen. Craig Barshinger said the community presents a double standard when, on St. John, drugs are sold openly some 200 feet from the police headquarters. St. Thomas/St. John Police Chief Rodney Querrard immediately asked the senator where this occurred.

"Everyone knows it," Barshinger said, adding that the dealers even knew him, though he doesn’t buy or use drugs himself.

"He’s cool, but he doesn’t use," Barshinger said they say of him.

Querrard didn’t find the story amusing.

"Not everyone knows it, because I didn’t know it," he said, adding that his officers will be addressing the situation immediately.

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The schedule for the Senate hearing Friday was for a discussion on "the escalating violent crimes in the Virgin Islands,” though law enforcement officials were quick to point out that crime statistics – even for homicides – are down in the territory.

The hearing was held by the Senate's Committee on Public Safety Homeland Security and Justice Friday morning in the Fritz E. Lawaetz Conference Room on St. Croix. No action or votes were taken because the hearing was not focused on a specific bill.

The wide-ranging discussion, often emotional, included such issues as parenting, the role of community, guns, gold sales, and drugs. Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson proposed a bill to decriminalize marijuana use in the territory.

Both Acting Police Commissioner Raymond Hyndman and Attorney General Vincent F. Frazer corrected the impression that crime is on the rise, pointing to statistics that show crime is down and arrests are up, although neither witness was satisfied.

"While criminal activity will always be evident in any society, I am not sure that I would agree that we have an increase," Frazer said. "I believe the statistics may show the opposite. However, I agree that the incidents of homicide and other violent crime activity is distressing to us in our small communities."

Statistics presented by the police department bore out Frazer's statement. Homicides hit record levels in 2009 and 2010, topping out at last year's 66 for the territory. This year the number of homicides, though still high, is behind last year at the same time. Through August 2010, there had been 47 murders compared to 31 so far this year. That's a 34 percent drop, more than one-third.

But there's still plenty of room for improvement. In 2010 the U.S. Virgin Islands was the deadliest place in the United States, with an average of 60 homicides per 100,000 people. For that same year, New Orleans had the highest murder rate among U.S. cities with 28 deaths per 100,000 citizens. Even if there is not another murder in the territory this year, the V.I. is already right at that number.

And the nationwide average was only 5.2 murders per 100,000 citizens, far below the V.I. rate.

Hyndman said the department is continuing to fight drug trafficking in the territory, a battle that requires adapting and changing tactics as drug sellers change their approaches.

"While I cannot go into specific details about our drug interdiction strategies for obvious reasons, I can tell you that we have a dedicated team which is utilizing various techniques and strategies that have proven successful in their jurisdictions," Hyndman said. "The department recognizes there is a change in the current drug climate and is providing officers with specialized training and equipment to support their efforts."

A presentation from Jermaine Dennis of Speak the Word Ministries pointed the finger at fatherless families as a major condition leading to crime in the territory. Studies show that the children of single teenage mothers are at greater risk for later criminal behavior, because teen mothers monitor their children less and do not have the experience and training to consistently raise their children. Further, they are usually struggling just to support their child n the absence of any support from the father.

Children failing to behave properly or never learning how go on to have trouble at school, which leads to their alienation from the school community and their spending more time with similar outsiders. The result is a candidate ripe for recruiting into a gang, and a life of crime.

But Sen Nellie Rivera-O'Reilly took exception, saying sharply that it's wrong to "blame" single mothers. Fathers have to step up, and the community needs to provide more resources when they don't, she said. She also pointed to millions in unpaid child support, suggesting that could make a huge difference in the life of a child.

Nelson questioned why police spend so much time on crimes like simple possession of marijuana. Those resources could be used for fighting more serious crimes, and the fact is, he said, a large segment of the population does not find smoking marijuana to be a serious problem.

"What's causing crime is lack of opportunity, lack of background and education to find job," he said.

Nelson said people sell drugs because there's little else for them to do. And if the community didn't buy the marijuana, they wouldn't be able to sell it.

For that reason, he said he was exploring proposing a bill decriminalizing marijuana. A short time later a draft bill with his name on it circulated around the hearing room.

The bill notes that decriminalizing does not mean legalizing. Instead, the bill would reduce the penalties for usage or possession of two ounces or less, making it an offense punishable by a fine of $100.

Sen. Craig Barshinger said the community presents a double standard when, on St. John, drugs are sold openly some 200 feet from the police headquarters. St. Thomas/St. John Police Chief Rodney Querrard immediately asked the senator where this occurred.

"Everyone knows it," Barshinger said, adding that the dealers even knew him, though he doesn't buy or use drugs himself.

"He's cool, but he doesn’t use," Barshinger said they say of him.

Querrard didn't find the story amusing.

"Not everyone knows it, because I didn't know it," he said, adding that his officers will be addressing the situation immediately.