Prisoners sentenced to more than a year in prison will be able to get up to a year off their sentences if they continue their educations, if a bill approved in the Rules and Judiciary Committee on Thursday becomes law. The committee also approved legislation to make it easier for some youthful offenders to have their records expunged for minor offenses and to clarify the territory’s Good Samaritan law to encourage people to help one another in an emergency.
The bill to allow reduced sentences for educational advancement, [Bill 31-0074] sponsored by Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, offers increasing benefits for increasing levels of achievement, with three months off for acquiring a General Educational Development certificate and up to 12 months off for completing a bachelor’s degree.
Rivera-O’Reilly said it was well established that educational advancement reduced the likelihood of going to prison and reduced recidivism among offenders.
Director of the University of the Virgin Islands Community Engagement and Lifelong Learning school Ilene Garner, acting Police Commissioner Delroy Richards, acting Bureau of Corrections Director Dwayne Benjamin and Chief Public Defender Samuel Joseph all testified in support of the bill, citing the same reasons as Rivera-O’Reilly.
"Based on experience, I can confidently say, in the Virgin Islands, lack of education has and continues to be a major contributor to our high crime rates and recidivism," Joseph said.
"If we as a society are serious about addressing crime and recidivism then we must educate our people. If we give persons the opportunity to acquire education and training in exchange for reduced sentences the results yielded will only be beneficial to our society," Joseph said.
Benjamin said, “It is a fact that offenders who obtain educational/vocational certificates have greater success rate than those who don’t.” He said statistics support that “most correctional institutions are now utilizing this approach within their various jurisdictions."
Benjamin said currently educational programs are voluntary and the BOC would like to see the bill amended so all offenders who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent to enroll within six months of incarceration.
Sen. Neville James asked, “What percentage of the prison population lacks a high school diploma?”
Benjamin said 65 percent of prisoners do not have a GED or high school diploma.
The committee approved the bill with Sen. Kenneth Gittens providing the only "no" vote. Gittens said several times that he supports the bill but cannot vote for it until it has been amended to change some of the wording.
The committee also approved another penal reform bill sponsored by Rivera-O’Reilly [Bill No. 31-0094], which would make it easier to have misdemeanors expunged from the record and to explicitly state that people who are charged but not convicted are automatically entitled to have their records expunged.
Many young Virgin Islanders who get into some trouble while teenagers and young men face lifelong hardship due to difficulty getting jobs and getting into schools as a result of their criminal records, Rivera-O’Reilly argued in support of the bill, adding that some of them are pushed into crime by their lack of opportunity.
If enacted into law, the measure will change expungement procedures so that if the requirements are met and a petition is filed, expungement is automatic unless the Department of Justice objects. Currently the already overworked Justice Department must deliberate and act on each application.
V.I. attorney Russell Pate testified there were often multi-year delays in getting an expungement, along with multiple years of delay built into the law.
Someone "deserving of an expungement, like, for example, a teenager who was joyriding in his uncle’s car and sentenced to one day in jail but exposed under its code to up to one year, must wait five years instead of shorter time," Pate said. "However, by having to wait five years, he then had to disclose the arrest on his college and military school applications and was denied enrollment," he said.
The bill was approved with Gittens providing the sole "no" vote. Gittens said he supported the goal of the bill but, like the other bill, it needed amendment before he could vote yes.
The committee also approved a bill [Bill No. 31-0030] sponsored by Sen. Sammuel Sanes, which would extend legal immunity to anyone who provides help in emergencies, also known as the Good Samaritan Law. The existing law is unclear on who is covered and can be read to assert that only certain first responders and other specific kinds of individuals who assist in emergencies are immune from liability.