Sept. 14, 2005 – Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Usie Richards and Ronald Russell called for the reform of mandatory sentencing laws in the Virgin Islands Wednesday.
Jn Baptiste called the V.I. laws "Draconian." He said federal law calls for a mandatory sentence of four years for the unlawful possession of a gun, but the V.I. law calls for 15 years for the same offense. He said, "In the Virgin Islands you get seven years just for the possession of a bullet."
In a Finance Committee meeting, Figueroa-Serville said that no one really measures the social costs when so many young men are incarcerated for long periods. He said, "In the Virgin Islands 60 to 70 percent of the kids are brought up in single parent homes. This is dysfunctional family life."
Russell said, "This is a very serious issue. We need to reform those laws expeditiously." He said the American Bar Association had released an "excellent" study on the impact of mandatory sentencing and he would make a copy available to all senators.
Richards said, "We have a higher percentage of young, black males in jail than we do in colleges and universities."
The discussion was initiated at the committee meeting when Figueroa-Serville reported about the situation at John H. Woodson Junior High School, which had been closed down in a protest concerning lack of repairs. He questioned whether the youth of the island were actually a priority.
Jn Baptiste said $900,000 had been appropriated this year for repairs to the governor's mansion on St. Croix, but only $500,000 for repair of all the school buildings. He said, "One has to wonder what the priorities are here."
The committee conversation, broadcast on the radio led, someone from the listening audience to fax Jn Baptiste a Louisiana law repealing mandatory sentencing laws. On a break Jn Baptiste received it and read the preamble of it into the record.
He said mandatory sentencing laws are counter-productive and that they "cause more harm than good." He also said high rates of incarceration were burdensome to the taxpayer.
He said, "It costs us $23,000 a year to keep a person incarcerated. It only costs $6,000 to educate a student."
When asked why V.I. laws were more severe than federal laws, he said, "In the Virgin Islands we often overreact to a situation."
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