ST. CROIX – The Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, under the leadership of Kenneth L. Gittens, convened Tuesday in a meeting at the Fritz E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room. The Committee heard updates from the Virgin Islands Bureau of Corrections and the Virgin Islands Territorial Management Agency as it pertains to preparations for the current hurricane season. Additionally, lawmakers vetted a measure establishing geriatric parole. The approved item will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.
In Block 1, the Committee considered Bill No. 35-0045, an act amending Title 5 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 407 relating to eligibility for parole by adding section 4601a to establish Medical Parole as a basis for parole; further amending Title 5, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 407 by adding Section 4601b to establish Geriatric Parole as a basis for parole and for other related purposes. The measure was proposed by Senator Franklin D. Johnson. Additionally, testimony was heard concerning matters related to inmates remanded to the care, custody and control of the Bureau of Corrections who are housed at off-island facilities. Specifically, about the Bureau’s director or staff’s visits to the facility and inmates, availability of academic and vocational programs and other related topics.
Wynnie Testamark, the Director of the Bureau of Corrections delivered primary testimony. She stated that the Bureau could not support Bill 35-0045 in its current form. Testamark said that the bill is internally inconsistent. According to her testimony, the Bill mandates that the bureau verify a “plan for residency” for all applicants for medical parole, including those who are undocumented with an immigration hold. Undocumented inmates cannot legally have residency in the United States. The proposed bill also states that inmates can petition the courts for a writ of habeas corpus if the Parole Board does not act timely on their application for medical or geriatric parole. Virgin Islands Courts have recognized that inmates do not have any right to parole, stating that habeas corpus relief may be inappropriate. Testamark mentioned that the bill would conflict with other statutes as well as decisions of the Virgin Islands Courts, as well as taking away the director’s discretion to recommend inmates to the parole board, as well as undermining the authority of the governor regarding commutations and pardons. It would also make most inmates 65 years or older eligible for geriatric parole including those convicted of first-degree murder.
According to Testamark, as of August 17, 2023, there are 19 inmates in BOC custody who are 65 years or older. Twelve of the inmates would be eligible to apply for parole today if they had a chronic illness. Only three inmates would be eligible for medical parole today if they were ill or terminally ill or permanently incapacitated. All but three could apply for early or regular parole under existing law. Testamark also stated that the bill would produce unintended results. For example, an inmate with a “chronic, life-threatening illness” sentenced at 64 years of age to life without parole for committing murder theoretically would be eligible to apply for geriatric parole as soon as he turns 65; but an inmate sentenced at the same age with the same condition who used a gun to rob a store, but killed no one, could not apply for either medical or geriatric parole until he turns 79, if he receives a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence under 14 V.I.C. § 2254(b). All inmates 65 years or older convicted of first-degree murder, except one would be eligible for geriatric parole, while five inmates who were given mandatory minimum sentences for sex crimes or firearm offenses would not.
She stated that Bill 35-0045 would remove protections that were available under the law. The current law currently provides that an inmate suffering from a serious medical condition can already petition the Parole Board for early release once he has served one-third of his sentence but only if such parole is not prohibited by law; and he has received the required recommendation from the Director and a psychiatrist or psychologist; and “unusual or extenuating circumstances” justify such action. Under existing law, the Parole Board must approve a petition for early parole by a two-thirds vote. Testamark mentioned that while the objective of the bill was admirable, the bill needed to be revised substantially to be workable.
Testamark and her team recently met with inmates housed at the Citrus County Detention Facility in Florida, and the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi. They spoke with 82 inmates who were willing to meet with them. The inmates preferred to be home, however correctional facilities in the U.S. Virgin Islands cannot accommodate them. Testamark reminded inmates that they are free to participate in vocational and educational programming at facilities. Testamark confirmed that the vocational and education requirements of section 4503c were being met and stated that offenders placed at these facilities complied with the requirements of section 4503c of Title 5.
Dennis Howell, the Chairman of the Parole Board of the Virgin Islands delivered testimony. Howell strongly urged the body to seriously consider the Bill. He stated that we have recently witnessed rehabilitation efforts that promote second chances such as education and training programs. Howell stated that prison beds should be reserved for the highest risk offenders and stated that risk categories change as time in incarceration lengthens. A comprehensive risk assessment administered by a clinical forensic psychologist should be done to determine the current risk level. Howell stated that this proposed law should not risk or jeopardize the safety of officers, staff, or prison population, and believed that it would enhance mental health for all concerns. Senator Alma Francis Heyliger voiced concern over the proposed measure. Francis Heyliger stated that there was concern for offenders, but none for the victims, stating that there is a reason that someone is locked away and in prison at 60,65 years old. She stated that she needed to hear the perspective of the victims of crime. The proposed measure was voted upon favorably.
In Block 2, the Committee received testimony from the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency and other related agencies relative to the state of readiness as the peak of the 2023 hurricane season approaches. Daryl Jaschen, the Director of the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency delivered testimony. Jaschen reminded the body that Hurricane Season for the Atlantic basin runs from June 1 through November 30. The height of hurricane season is from August 15 through October 15, where 85% of tropical cyclones form in the Atlantic. The peak of hurricane season is September 10. As of this meeting, there have been two credible threats which resulted in the deployment of the FEMA Incident Management Assistance Teams (IMATs) to the US Virgin Islands with over one hundred individuals each time. The first time was for Tropical Storm Bret and for Hurricane Lee. Both deployments were at the direction of the FEMA Administrator and do not require a Territorial State of Emergency by Governor Albert Bryan, nor do they come at any cost to the Virgin Islands Government. VITEMA and FEMA use these deployments to conduct coordination activities and test backup communication equipment, assess changes in plan, conduct face to face meetings between territorial and federal counterparts, as well as have fully staffed response teams on the ground and seaports closing. VITEMA also holds weekly emergency support function five in person meetings at each of the VITEMA Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) on St. Thomas, St Croix, and St. John. Representatives from the lead territory agencies for the 15 emergency support functions are in attendance as well as support agencies, such as the American Red Cross, and the Department of Education.
General Kodjo Knox-Limbacker, the Adjutant General delivered testimony. Knox-Limbacker reminded the body that the Virgin Islands was geographically isolated from the mainland which makes external support complex. When faced with all hazard events, the territory has a myriad of dilemmas. Unlike the mainland, where nearby states could assist, the entire population of the US Virgin Islands is not fully available to evacuate the affected area. There are currently no military air assets in the USVI and Puerto Rico has limited air assets. Neither territory has Air Force fixed wing capability in their respective national guards. Puerto Rico only has a limited amount of army rotary and fixed wing capability in their National Guard.
Sean Santos, the Chief of Police of the St Croix District, along with Steven Phillip, the Chief of Police for the St. Thomas St John District delivered testimony. VIPD, serving as the lead agency for Emergency Support Function 13 (ESF-13) – Public Safety & Security, continues to collaborate seamlessly with our local and federal partners, focusing on stabilizing the critical Community Lifeline of Safety & Security. This includes maintaining law and order, site security and access control and traffic control especially during evacuations or any mass movement of people and critical operational supplies. Under Virgin Islands Code, Title 23, the VITEMA Act of 1986, the governor may authorize use of territorial resources by declaring a state of emergency. Upon the Governor’s declaration of a pre-landfall state of emergency, all government law enforcement agencies across the territory promptly report to the Police Commissioner, making themselves available for mission assignments. The Virgin Islands National Guard also is ready to lend support to VIPD. Effective ongoing coordination between VITEMA, Port Authority and the US Coast Guard ensures the timely deployment of police and National Guard resources to St John preempting any port closures that may impede their mission. VIPD Marine assessments, in the event of port closures at the Cyril E King Airport and the Henry Rohlsen Airport, can deliver swift response between islands. Additionally, if a curfew is established, VIPD can establish traffic control points quickly. VIPD remains responsive to 911 calls until the onset of Tropical Storm force winds, after which they shelter in place until the storm passes.
Miguel Tricoche, the Deputy Commissioner of Operations for the Virgin Islands Department of Human Services delivered testimony. The Department of Human Services is the lead agency under emergency support function six, or ESF6, which includes Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Housing and Human Services. The following are the official primary congregate evacuation shelter locations: The St. Croix Educational Complex will be utilized and has a total capacity of 2,034, depending on set up. The gymnasium bleachers out seating is 800, gymnasium court/floor is 248, cafeteria is 236, and auditorium fixed seating is 750. There is a quarantine room with a capacity of 16. The DC Canegata Community Center will also be utilized and has a capacity of 161 and has a quarantine room set up for eight if needed. The Lockhart elementary and junior high school cafeteria has a capacity of 248, with the potential to expand to classrooms. The Ivanna Eudora Kean High School has a capacity of 460. The cafeteria was taken offline due to repairs needed. It has a capacity of 161. The Adrian Senior Center in St. John has a capacity of 15. DHS is in the final stage of approving a memorandum of understanding with a congregate center location on St. John with a capacity of 140. Disaster preparedness training for all areas of ESF6 has been ongoing.
Derek Gabriel, the Commissioner of the Department of Public Works delivered testimony. The Department manages the function of ESF3, which is focused on route clearance, debris management and monitoring, and engineering support. DPW also supports other emergency functions as they perform mass movement, if needed through the Department of Transportation, shelter preparation, and commodity distribution if needed. The department participates in year-round trainings offered by VITEMA and FEMA and other local and federal partners to ensure they are prepared in the event of a disaster. Engineering and Construction management is a vital part of disaster preparedness and the recovery process. The engineering team is responsible for performing preliminary and post event damage assessment to the territory’s infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and government buildings. They are also tasked with verifying the structural safety of the territory’s infrastructure. Additionally, every year the department performs a stormwater drainage system assessment of all major guts, culverts, and swales. Based on this assessment, a schedule is devised to have all of them cleaned before the beginning of hurricane season.
Senators present at today’s Committee hearing included Kenneth L. Gittens, Ray Fonseca, Angel L. Bolques Jr, Diane T. Capehart, Dwane M. Degraff, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Javan E. James, Sr., and Franklin D. Johnson.
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