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HomeNewsArchivesCHILD PROTECTION ACT FINALLY WINS SENATE OK

CHILD PROTECTION ACT FINALLY WINS SENATE OK

Jan. 31, 2002 – Three years after it was first introduced, Sen. Lorraine Berry's "Child Protection Act of 2001" was finally approved by the full Senate Thursday.
The bill was left in limbo at the closing session of the 23rd Legislature in December 2000. Reintroduced last year, it suffered a similar fate this past December, making it to the Senate floor only to be left unacted upon as the 24th Legislature ended its first year. However, because the 24th Legislature is continuing in 2002, it did not need to be reintroduced again.
Berry said Thursday that the bill's passage was "not a personal victory for me," but one "for the children of the Virgin Islands."
At a Government Operations Committee meeting last May, senators heard more than three hours of testimony on the measure from local experts in the fields of child and sexual abuse. Among those advocating its passage were Michal Rhymer, executive director of Family Resource Center; Clema Lewis, co-director of the Women's Coalition of St. Croix; Dilsa Capdeville, director of Kidscope; Iris Kern, director of The Safety Zone; and Attorney General Iver Stridiron. Nonetheless, the committee voted to table the bill.
The sticking point for some senators was raising the age of consent to 18 years from 16. Stridiron, backed by Kern, said that raising the age to 18 would cause a "myriad of difficulties in prosecution" in that it would in effect criminalize the case of a young male engaging in sexual relations with his 17-year-old girlfriend. "An 18-year-old who has consensual relations with his 17-year-old girlfriend could be criminally prosecuted," he said. If convicted, he added, the young man could end up serving a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
Berry subsequently amended the measure in an effort to persuade her colleagues that it would not lead to prison for such young men. It now expands the definition of "statutory rape" to include sexual intercourse or sodomy between a person 16 or 17 years old and someone at least five years older, if the two are not husband and wife.
The bill also dramatically increases mandatory penalties for rape. It specifies that an adult found guilty of rape in the second degree "shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years." First degree rape is punishable by a term up to life imprisonment, but not less than 15 years. Another significant section of the bill lifts the current three-year limitation for reporting aggravated rape. Reports of rape in the territory have been steadily mounting for years. The Women's Coalition of St. Croix states in a report that one out of every three girls and one out of every five boys will be the victim of some form of sexual assault before reaching the age of 18. The report further states that one out of every five rape victims is under the age of 12, and that in 85 percent of reported cases, the abuser is someone the child knows.
Discussion of the bill before Thursday morning's vote was unusually somber for the Senate floor. This prompted Berry to comment afterward of her colleagues, "I think they have become aware that the public will no longer tolerate a 'slap on the wrist' to those who feel they can molest our children with impunity."
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. commended Berry. "You have stuck with it," he said, "and now it won't hurt a 17-year-old and his girlfriend."
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste said he thought it was "about time we consider castration" of rapists. "We need drastic action. The Legislature needs to grant money to hire martial arts instructors for our schools so they can train young women how to defend themselves," he said. "We need to tell the girls, 'You're precious, you're special,' and we need to tell those people [would-be rapists], 'Keep your dirty paws off our daughters.'"
The bill was approved 12-1, with Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen casting the lone negative vote and Sens. David Jones and Adelbert Bryan absent. Hansen has expressed concern that the measure would unfairly incarcerate young men.
Uniform Commercial Code approved
The Uniform Commercial Code bill, another measure which has been around the Senate circuit, up to Government House for a line-item veto, and back to the Senate, also finally passed Thursday. The bill will bring the Virgin Island into compliance with the national code. For background, see the Oct. 27, 2001, story "V.I. one step closer to UCC compliance".
The Senate also approved a lease agreement with John's Auto Center and passed a bill providing for electronic registration of male residents ages 18-25 with the Selective Service System when they apply for a driver's license.
As of 7:30 p.m. Thursday, with as least six other bills and many amendments poised to come to the floor, the Senate was expected to remain in session well into the night.

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