The V.I. Department of Justice will be mandated to create a forensics lab if legislation approved by the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee on Thursday becomes law. The committee also approved the nomination of Acting Fire Service Director Clifford Joseph and temporarily held a bill adding penalties for committing crimes while wearing body armor.
The lab measure, [Bill 31-0145] sponsored by Sens. Novelle Francis, Neville James and Sammuel Sanes, says the Justice Department "shall establish, staff and equip a forensic crime laboratory in the Virgin Islands," and that it must be certified by one of the major national certifying bodies.
Introducing the bill to the Senate Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety Committee, Francis, a former V.I. police commissioner and retired career V.I. police officer, spoke about the high cost and delays for law enforcement caused by the lack of a local lab.
Currently, evidence such as blood, DNA, saliva and alcohol are sent off-island. Because of the cost and delays, "timely analysis is not being done to make sure perpetrators of violent crimes are held accountable," Francis said, introducing the bill to the Rules and Judiciary Committee. "This is not only time consuming but extremely costly.”
In many cases, violent criminals were never convicted because there was no good way to process the evidence in a timely fashion, he said.
When the bill was first heard in committee in August, DOJ officials said they could really use a local a lab, but without funding, the mandate would probably fall by the wayside. (See Related Links below)
Thursday, Francis said "we have identified a funding source," saying an amendment will be introduced in session to appropriate $500,000 from projected federal excise tax revenues on rum production along with some Public Finance Authority funds set aside for a crime lab.
While the committee approved the bill unanimously, several senators said they had concerns about the funding.
"A lab of this standard is going to take money for staff, staff training," and keeping equipment up to date, Sen. Jean Forde said. "So I do have some concerns along that line: Where is the money and who is gong to pay for it. But I do believe it is necessary.”
Sen. Justin Harrigan said "we should not have such good ideas stumped just by not having money available," and suggested businesses might help sponsor a lab in hopes iof reducing crime and therefore be good for business.
"I fully understand the committee members’ concern with respect to funding," Sen. Neville James said. But the Legislature should issue its mandate to help start the process and press the DOJ to find funding, James said.
"Who is to say the federal government won’t help fund once we mandate it?" James said.
During the initial hearing on the bill, DOJ officials said there was some federal funding potentially available for a crime lab, but not enough.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens, the bill’s sponsor, said he agreed with James, and said the lab may be able to generate revenues by processing requests from other Caribbean nations.
Francis also said the DOJ would save the money it previously spent off-island too, saying the DOJ "has at times spent hundreds of thousands of dollars" on testing.
Voting to send the bill on for a final Senate vote were Francis, Forde, James, Harrigan, Gittens and Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly. Harrigan left before the vote, due to a death in the family.
The committee temporarily held a bill that added penalties for committing a violent crime while wearing body armor to consult with legal counsel on possible changes to the bill to make its impact more clear, when taken together with existing law banning people convicted of a violent felony from owning personal body armor.
The committee approved the nomination of Acting Fire Director Clifford Joseph to hold that post on a permanent basis.
Joseph, a 20-plus V.I. Fire Service veteran, has been serving as acting director since July. He began his career as a firefighter and moved up the ranks, to fire corporal in 2003, fire sergeant in 2005, fire lieutenant in 2009, and most recently fire captain, fire marshall in 2012.
A graduate of the VIPD Post Peace Officer/Law Enforcement Training Certification, Joseph is certified in Hazmat first responder awareness, conflict resolution, national wildfire incident command, fire science, and a certified responder for weapons of mass destruction, among other qualifications.
Joseph said funding and manpower are among the department’s most pressing problems. Manpower shortages have made overtime costs a growing problem, but there is not enough funding for overtime, he said. To address it, he has reduced the number of vehicles at some stations, because each vehicle has a mandatory complement of firefighters, he said. Asked if that reduced readiness, Joseph said funding and manpower shortages affected the ability to respond, but the vehicle movements were not themselves a major change.
Senators unanimously sent Joseph’s nomination on for final approval by the full Senate.