A bill restoring the right of felons to vote after they’ve served out their jail sentence got the thumbs up Friday from the Senate’s Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee, with senators saying that a "second chance" to become a "productive member of society" should be given to anyone who wants it.
Currently, the V.I. Code disallows individuals who have twice been convicted of felonies or crimes "involving moral turpitude" from voting for 10 years after serving out their sentence. A first time offender, however, is allowed to vote again one year after he or she is discharged. The bill considered Friday, however, does not make the distinction, and restores the right of any felon to vote after they’ve served out their sentence, or completed their parole, probation or restitution payments.
Testifying during a committee meeting on St. Thomas, Attorney General Vincent Frazer explained that most states have restricted felons from voting, and said Friday that he is "not sure" that the changes included in the bill are good ones.
"This change puts all felony convictions on the same plane," he said. "This change may reduce the deterrent for habitual offenders, and I am not sure this is a good change."
While Frazer added that he wasn’t there to make an argument either for or against the bill, representatives from the V.I. Board of Elections made clear their support, saying that the basic right to vote is one of most basic privileges afforded to American citizens.
"The Board of Elections and the Election System welcome the opportunity to be part of this process, by which this bill will enhance the quality of life by giving, returning and retaining one extremely important basic right to the stakeholders in our community," said Claudette Georges, vice-chairwoman of the Joint Board of Elections.
Absent from Friday’s meeting, Elections’ Supervisor John Abramson also sent written remarks supporting the bill, saying that the move to "expand felon voting rights" is currently a national trend. Senators echoed these remarks, saying that the option should be available to those who want to get back on the right track.
Switching gears, senators also cleared a bill authorizing the executive branch to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with U.S. Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, along with the national Transportation Security Administration, for the sharing of information on firearms, or other weapons and substances entering the territory.
All government representatives testifying Friday spoke in support of the bill, saying, among other things, that more cooperation from the feds — particularly when it comes to checking what’s coming in through the ports — is critical to stemming the flow of illegal weapons in the territory.
While testifying on an unrelated bill, Frazer said Friday that the territory has strict laws for residents who want to obtain a weapon legally, but is sometimes overtaken by illegal weapons crossing the borders.
"The sentiment expressed in this bill may help us get to get the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) to cooperate with the V.I. Police Department in helping us protect the gateway at airports from the importation of the ever increasing number of illegal firearms," he said.
While Frazer added that the federal agencies with offices in the territory have been cooperative, the V.I. government has not yet been able to hammer out a formal agreement with the TSA.
Senators also passed a bill setting up new traffic fines for various violations, and increasing penalties currently on the books. But with the exception of committee chairman Sen. Sammuel Sanes, they voted against a bill stiffening the territory’s laws for illegal weapons possession, and adding a definition for the term "assault rifle" into the statutes.
While arguments for and against the bill were varied, most senators said that territory already has "harsh" statutes when compared to other U.S. jurisdictions, and stiffening them could tie local judges’ hands when it comes to sentencings.
All bills approved Friday were forwarded to the Senate’s Rules and Judiciary Committee for further consideration. Present during Friday’s hearing were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Louis P. Hill, Janette Millin-Young, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, Usie R. Richards, Ronald E. Russell, Sanes, Alvin L. Williams and Celestino A. White Sr.