The Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety heard testimony on a variety of bills Monday, including a proposal to set up emergency call-boxes across the territory, then voted to hold all of them in committee.
The other bills would specifically criminalize home invasions, increase the threshold for grand larceny, and set penalties for overweight trucks. The hearing took place in the Frits E. Lawaetz Conference Room on St. Croix.
A measure sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Gittens would have directed VITEMA to put emergency call boxes along roadsides throughout the territory. It would appropriate $25,000 for the purpose.
St. Croix resident Anthony Mastroianni, a member of the St. Croix Public Safety Summit Call Box Committee, formed by the St.Croix Hotel and Tourism Association, testified in support of the call boxes.
"Their use has proven to be effective in reducing the opportunistic crimes of assault and sexual assault as well as improving response times for EMS," he said.
VITEMA Director Elton Lewis, Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard and Assistant Tourism Commissioner Brad Nugent all gave qualified support for the concept of emergency call boxes. But they and Mastroianni all repeatedly emphasized that there must be much more funding, both to purchase the call boxes at $6,000 to $8,000 each, and to maintain them.
"Any initiative of this type will need to budget for three to five years of these costs, with a plan for funding the ongoing maintenance and repair for the lifetime of the system," said Mastroianni.
Lewis also raised a concern that cell-phones may have rendered call-boxes less useful.
"With the proliferation of cell phones in recent years, there has been a significant decline in the use of emergency call boxes," Lewis said. In California, freeway call boxes were used about 98,000 times in 2001, he said. "That number dropped by 80 percent, to 20,100 times, in 2010, or about one call per box per month," Lewis said.
Gittens, the bill’s sponsor, moved to hold it in committee for further amendment. Voting to hold the bill for amendment were: Gittens, Sens. Judi Buckley, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Clarence Payne, Tregenza Roach and Sammuel Sanes. Sen. Craig Barshinger was absent.
Querrard testified in support of a measure sponsored by Barshinger to increase the penalty for overweight trucks to a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $2,000, saying "very simply, we are in full support of this amendment." He raised concerns about whether the territory had the equipment to weigh trucks, and who should be tasked with this duty.
Public Works Commissioner Daryl Smalls testified that the existing scales may no longer be operable. Historically, the territory’s roads have not been constructed and repaired with clear-cut, codified weight limits, which would need to be done to tell truckers which roads they can and cannot use, according to Smalls.
Senators held the measure by unanimous consent.
The committee voted to hold a bill from Sen. Diane Capehart that established a separate criminal offense and separate penalties for home invasion robberies, until a future date.
And it held a bill, sponsored by Sanes and Buckley, to increase the threshold at which theft becomes felony grand larceny from $100 to $1,000. Querrard testified in opposition to this measure, saying the low $100 threshold helps to deter thieves, and raising it would encourage them.
"If the threshold was already $1,000, do you think the people recently arrested for the metal thefts would still be in jail?" Querrard said, referring to recent arrests in relation to large amounts of copper wire and other stolen materials.
The committee reconvenes Tuesday morning to consider several more bills affecting crime and punishment.