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Wednesday, May 22, 2024
HomeNewsLocal governmentSenators Favor Clean Records, But Not Turning Misdemeanors into Felonies

Senators Favor Clean Records, But Not Turning Misdemeanors into Felonies

Public Defender Julie Smith-Todman testified on both bills at the Senate on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of V.I. Legislature)

The Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety Tuesday considered ways to punish the guilty more and the innocent less. The bill helping the innocent would remove a black mark from the record of a person arrested without probable cause.

Before the Internet, an arrest without a conviction or an arraignment would matter little. Now, with background checks by employers, school administrators, police officers, and customs officials just a few clicks away, an arrest that did not amount to anything could present a bad image of an innocent person.

Sen. Javan James Sr. introduced the bill implementing automatic expungement for arrests lacking probable cause. It was voted favorably and forwarded to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for further consideration.

A press release issued after the hearing from James’ office stated, “This historic bill represents a vital step towards ensuring justice, fairness, and the protection of individuals’ rights within the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

The six senators at the hearing expressed support for the measure, as did two testifiers — attorney Julie Smith-Todman, interim chief at the Office of the Territorial Public Defender, and attorney Russell Pate, managing partner, Pate Law Firm.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens, who chaired the hearing, questioned whether the automatic expungement could be extended to individuals who went to trial later and were found innocent. Pate replied, “It would be nice.” However, that expansion was not considered during the hearing. Pate said that individuals who had gone to trial were generally more aware of how the activity would appear on his and her record and how it could be deleted. According to testimony, the legal proceedings to get a record expunged could cost over $1,000 and take over six months.

Smith-Todman testified that most arrests in the territory occur without an arrest warrant. Citizens are then brought before a judge who determines whether the arrest is supported by probable cause. Records documenting court proceedings – are open to the public. Even when the court determines that no probable cause existed for the arrest of an individual, those records remain and could result in misinterpretation and discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check. Smith-Todman stated, “The advent of digitized record systems has opened an entirely new industry that traffics in personal information. A criminal record – even when it is only an arrest record with no conviction – can seriously impact a person’s life.”

The committee held for further consideration a bill that would turn illegal gambling misdemeanors into felonies.

Raymond Williams, executive director of the V.I. Lottery, testified, “The V.I. Lottery has a vision; our goal here today is to empower not only our enforcement team but our wider law enforcement community.”

Smith-Todman also testified on this bill. She said her office was against raising fines, increasing jail times, and changing the offenses from misdemeanors to felonies. She said research indicates that “increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.”

Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. said that the illegal gambling in the territory was organized crime doing its best and “It is too important an issue to be addressed piecemeal.”

Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger said the problem was more about enforcement than penalties. She said there had to be alternatives to stop money that could be going into the local lottery from going to illegal gambling.

Williams testified, “Senators, this is our collective opportunity to increase revenues in the territory by eradicating illegal activity.”

Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Dwayne DeGraff, Angel Bolques Jr., Javan James Sr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Novelle Francis Jr., and Franklin Johnson attended Tuesday’s hearing.

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