Aug. 16, 2005 — Testimony given by acting Attorney General Kerry Drue at budget hearings Tuesday seemed to bolster senators' hopes for a decrease in crime across the territory within the next fiscal yearthat is, if a $30.1 million appropriation is approved for the Department of Justice by the Legislature.
Outlining a desperate need for additional staff for the Bureau of Corrections and at least 20 new employees for the Criminal, Civil, and Gaming Divisions, Drue told senators that about 154 vacant positions needed to be filled to keep the department running efficientlyat a cost totaling approximately $5.4 million.
"You have to understand that our employee application process is like a revolving door," DOJ Director of Operations Donna Gregory said. "People are always coming and going especially within the Bureau of Corrections. It's hard to get employees to stay."
Drawing upon memories of a recent visit to the Golden Grove prison facility in St. Croix, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson told Gregory that corrections officers must be "disgusted" by conditions within the territory's jails, as well as the lack of action being taken to fix them. "I have to say that the Golden Grove visit was a traumatic experience the building was decrepit, water was coming in from all ends I literally had to put the legs of my pants in my shoes because there was about four or five inches of water on the floor. Of course officers don't want to work in those conditions," Nelson said.
Nelson, along with Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., also discussed issues raised during a protest staged by corrections officers in Julynamely, whether officers will be getting paid for overtime hours worked within the last nine months, and promotions within the BOC system.
BOC acting Director Joseph Ponteen said that all pay issues have been resolved, and meetings are ongoing between Drue, government officials, and other BOC management staff.
On the topic of promotionswhere corrections officers have alleged that the BOC is not promoting officers in-house, but bringing in outside individuals at the behest of Director Agnes GeorgePonteen stated that he had heard the rumors, but likened them to a child being unhappy with a test grade. "That child blames the system that the system did them wrong instead of looking at all possibilities. But it is a matter that we will be looking into we have nothing to hide."
Drue said that progress has been made within the BOC to "maintain the pace" with corrective actions ordered through the local court systemparticularly with the construction of facilities to house inmates with mental illnesses. "The Annex Construction Project on St. Thomas is almost complete and is scheduled for occupancy within a month. On St. Croix, we are progressing with the renovation of the Anna's Hope facility to house and treat these inmates," Drue said.
Drue also told senators that the establishment of a new forensic unit in St. Croix will be using a large portion of the department's money. "While our budget request has increased by 14.4 percent from last fiscal year, this additional funding has been necessary, largely due to the mandate by court and local legislation for the creation of the forensic unit it is essential that our budget not be reduced," Drue said.
Drue and staff also discussed crime-reducing initiatives, including measures to keep V.I. youth of the prison system. "When I took a tour of the Golden Grove facility along with Sen. Nelson, I saw two young men in there that I used to train when I was doing baseball," Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville said, "This really saddens me I think that we should be doing all that we can to help our youth out of this kind of lifestyle."
Drue assured senators that steps are being taken through various youth programs instituted across the territory, including the Junior Assistant Attorney General's Program, the Street Law Program, and the Summer Apprenticeship Program. Drue added that the Sparks Program and the Miracle Babies Support Foundation also receive support.
In order to improve the Criminal Justice division, Drue and Gregory added that efforts are underway to additionally establish a witness protection and evacuation program so that there will be a reduction in the number of dismissed criminal cases. "While we do have problems with other agencies involved during the criminal justice process such as the Department of Public Safety we also have trouble trying to find witnesses for several cases who will come forward and cooperate," Drue said.
Nelson responded by saying that residents' confidence in the VIPD needs to be improved before any witnesses will step up with information. "I can tell you straight out that people don't trust the police. They think that if they testify, someone is going to come after them, and the police aren't going to do a thing about it," Nelson said.
The Finance Committee also received the testimony of representatives from the Civil Rights Commission, with a budget request that was $43,584 more than Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's recommendation.
"For this year, the governor has recommended that we receive $7,000 that is most definitely not enough for this commission to perform its mandated functions," CRC Chair Erva A. Denham said. "Therefore, we are requesting $50, 584 to allow us to meet once a month, to have hearings on cases ready for processing, and to allow other basics, including a court stenographer at our hearings."
Denham added that the organization has only been able to meet about three times a year, due to being underfunded for the past eight fiscal years.
Attorney Tom Bolt also came to present the budget for the V.I. Commission on Uniform State Laws, with a request for $25,000, instead of a governor-recommended $14,000.
"We have never requested that low a figure we have to pay annual dues to the National Commission on Uniform State Laws of $15,000. With such a small amount of money, we can't even take care of that," Bolt said.
However, Bolt did say that the sum could have been a mistake on the part of the Office of Management and Budget, as a result of a letter submitted to the office by Bolt requesting a draw-down of $14,000 for this fiscal year. "The way that it works is that we are appropriated a certain amount of money in the budget, but it is not allotted to us until we make a draw-down request up until April 4 of this year, nothing had been allotted by OMB because we hadn't requested anything. But then I requested this $14,000, and I believe that OMB misunderstood my request."
Senators present at Tuesday's hearing were Norman Jn Baptiste, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Neville James, Nelson, and Figueroa-Serville.
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