A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
The wheels of Justice grind notoriously slowly. It can take months, even years, to investigate a case. Years to prosecute it. Years to defend against appeals. And the considerable services of untold numbers of police personnel, investigators and government attorneys to put a person behind bars.
Then, after serving as little as half of his sentence, an inmate may be released on parole on the recommendation of three men who sit on a Parole Board that doesn’t even have a full membership.
Fortunately, the system is not really as skewed as that sounds.
But it is rather shrouded. Unless you are in the legal profession or are close to a convicted criminal or to a victim of crime, you probably don’t even know the rules and regulations for parole. And those who run the system are not anxious for publicity, as evinced by the fact that the Source has been unable to secure an interview with any of the board members after months of repeated requests.
Moreover, according to Darien Wheatley, the point man for the Parole Board in the V.I. Justice Department, “The board has decided not to open (its) meetings to the public.”
Wheatley and his boss, Attorney General Vincent Frazer, did speak about the workings of the system and Wheatley provided information about some of the board’s recent decisions.
According to the records of the hearings in 2011 and 2012, provided by Wheatley, 22 requests for parole were granted over that time period, and 38 requests were denied; that’s 36 percent granted, 63 percent denied.
The records also list six hearings about revoking an individual’s parole, and reflect that in four of those cases, parole was revoked.
Even to be considered for parole, a prisoner must meet certain criteria as spelled out in the V.I. Code.
First, except in “unusual or extenuating circumstances,” an inmate must have served at least half of his sentence, or, if the sentence is for life or anything more than 30 years, he must have served at least 15 years of it.
Second, prison records must reflect the applicant’s conduct has been “uniformly excellent for at least six months preceding the date of submission of application for parole.” His application must be in writing and must be accompanied by a positive recommendation from both the director of the Bureau of Corrections and from a psychiatrist or psychologist.
“Parole in the Virgin Islands is a privilege and not a right,” according to case law cited in the Code. “Where this statue contains discretionary language, no provisions suggest automatic parole,” it reads.”
Among the things the board may take into consideration is testimony from an applicant’s victim(s). Victims are supposed to be notified in advance of parole hearings so they may attend.
When the board votes to grant parole, it also sets terms and conditions for it. A prisoner is not released unless and until the governor approves the parole and its terms and conditions. If the governor doesn’t disapprove within 60 days, the parole goes into effect.
By statute, the board is supposed to meet at least twice a year, the first week of June and the first week of December, and may also hold special meetings as needed. The records Wheatley provided indicate the board has not strictly adhered to that schedule, but has stuck pretty close to it, meeting in May and in early December 2011 and in February and late June 2012.
A hearing scheduled for December 2012 was canceled when one of the members had to travel stateside for medical reasons. Because the board is undermanned, it cannot function efficiently.
By law, the board should have seven voting members, all appointed by the governor. Additionally, the attorney general sits on the board as a nonvoting member by virtue of his position. But the board currently has only three voting members: Chesley Roebuck, Samuel Garnett and Dennis Howell.
Normally an entity cannot meet to take any action without a quorum, which is generally defined as more than 50 percent of its members. But Wheatley said the Parole Board can make decisions if all three members vote the same the way.
The language in the Code states “affirmative action by the Board requires the vote of a majority of the voting members present at a meeting, provided that there must be at least three such members voting.”
Wheatley said there are some board nominations in the works but has not said how long the board has been functioning below a quorum level or the actual status of the nominations.
(Next week: Revoking parole/making the tough decisions.)