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  COMMITTEE VETS CRIMINAL RECORDS CHECK BILL, RECEIVES LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER AGENCY UPDATE

Published: Mar 12, 2024

ST. THOMAS – The Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, chaired by Sen. Kenneth L. Gittens, met at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall. Lawmakers considered a measure concerning criminal records checks in the employment application process. Additionally, the Committee received an update from agencies with enforcement officers. The approved item on today’s agenda will be sent to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further review.

Lawmakers considered Bill No. 35-0115, an act repealing Title 24, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 17, Subchapter II, “Limited Use of Criminal Records in Hiring Practices,” and enacting in its place “The Fair Chance for Employment Act” relative to criminal record checks in the employment application process; and amending Title 3, Virgin Islands Code, chapter 25, subchapter I, section 452 requiring the Director of Personnel to develop and implement fair chance hiring policies; and for other related purposes. Sen. Donna A. Frett-Gregory proposed the measure.

Nesha Christian-Hendrickson, Assistant Commissioner and Legal Counsel for the Department of Labor, delivered testimony. Christian-Hendrickson stated that the Department agreed with the essence of the bill, but with caveats. She acknowledged that it was important that there was a need to employ as many as possible, stating that most states in the mainland already have a Fair Chance in Employment Act. Christian-Hendrickson stated that requesting a police report when someone was not convicted of a crime would be a violation of the current statue. The Department stated that there must be protection for both the employer and the job seeker by creating an opportunity for a second chance. She asked that the body clarify language in the bill, detailing who is an “employer,” as well as clarifying procedure that could happen when an employer rescinds an employment offer.

Florine Audain-Hassel, Assistant Director of the Division of Personnel, delivered testimony, stating that they did not support the bill in its current form. A proposed section of the bill requiring that the Director of Personnel develop and implement fair change hiring policy, which considers existing policies, including the use of background check was challenged. Audain-Hassel stated that she believed this policy should remain at the Department of Labor, where it is currently housed. Audain-Hassel reiterated that the Division of Personnel did not send out rejections based solely on criminal history, saying such an action would be discriminatory. Furthermore, another proposed section of the measure, relating to the opportunity of the applicant to discuss why job offers were rescinded by the employer, was considered to be potentially burdensome to HR staff, who do not meet with other applicants to discuss why they were not chosen for the job, stating it could be considered discriminatory.

Kendra Roach, Chapter President of Society for Human Resource Management Virgin Islands delivered testimony stating that the proposed measure is a positive step towards providing equitable opportunities for those with criminal records, which foster their rehabilitation and reintegration within society. Roach stated that the measure aligns with principles of equity by leveling the playing field and providing fair opportunities for those with criminal records. The proposed measure was voted upon favorably.

Separately, the Committee heard an update relating to the status of law enforcement officer agencies. Testimonies included, but were not limited to, reports on agency recruitment efforts, certifications and recertification procedures, enforcement strategies, execution of penalties, citations, and current initiatives.

Shayln Proctor, Deputy Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Lottery delivered testimony. Proctor stated that the agency required all their officers to be POST certified as a condition of their employment. The agency is also actively recruiting for the position of Chief of Enforcement on the island of St. Croix. Proctor reiterated the fact that they are expanding their efforts to fill critical vacancies, however, due to human resources shortages territorially, filling the vacancies remains difficult. The agency does pay salaries that are higher than other government agencies, however recruiting remains difficult.

Anderson Poleon Sr, Director of the Environmental Enforcement Division of the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority, delivered updates on behalf of his agency. Poleon Sr. stated that the division currently consists of six environmental enforcement inspectors territory wide. This includes four officers, two inspectors on St. Croix, and two officers, two inspectors stationed on St. Thomas. There are currently no officers or inspectors on St. John. The agency has been actively recruiting to fill vacancies. Interviews for environmental officers were held on October 25, which resulted in the division hiring three officers, two on St. Croix and one on St. Thomas. It is expected that this division will provide coverage to combat the problem of illegal dumping at bin sites, landfills, businesses, residential areas, wastewater facilities and utility holes. With a fully staffed division, which would consist of twenty officers, ten inspectors, and two compliance investigators, as well as cameras, it would be able to move quickly and issue citations. Poleon stated that the division is severely underfunded, and needs six marked police utility vehicles for patrolling, equipped with cameras because dumping happens in dense bushy areas where their current vehicles cannot traverse. It is expected that with a full complement of staff, there would be more citations. In 2022, the authority’s three officers wrote seventy-two citations, totaling $72,000 in fines. With the addition of three officers last year, 231 citations have been issued, totaling $231,000 in fines.

Bill Rawlings, the Assistant Executive Director for the Virgin Islands Port Authority, delivered testimony stating that VIPA’s current law enforcement department consists of twenty-two officers in the St. Thomas- St. John district and ten in the St Croix district. There are five vacancies in the St. Thomas St John District, four full time and one part time. There are eight full time vacancies in St. Croix. VIPA has been actively trying to recruit to fill its vacancies, offering a $1,000 sign on bonus on the St. Thomas St John District and a $5,000 bonus on St. Croix, where recruitment has been more difficult. The bonus is paid once the officer completes their probationary period. VIPA offers a starting salary of $35,000 annual for police officer trainees, and $40,953 for police officers. All VIPA law enforcement officers are trained via the Virgin Islands Police Department Pace Officers and Training (POST) Training and must meet the same requirements as officers who serve in the VIPD. Recertification is also conducted via the POST academy. VIPA officers train with the US Coast Guard to receive first responder experience and training to respond to maritime emergencies. VIPA’s law enforcement officers do not usually have a large number of citations issued each month; they usually include minor infractions such as parking or traffic violations.

Chairperson Gittens implored the law enforcement agencies to step up their game and take enforcement action so that the Virgin Islands could be a safer community.

Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Kenneth L. Gittens, Ray Fonseca, Angel L. Bolques Jr, Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. Degraff, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Donna A. Frett-Gregory and Franklin D. Johnson.

The Division of Public Affairs is committed to providing the community with accurate information on proceedings at the Legislature of the Virgin Islands. Visit legvi.org.

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