ST. THOMAS- The Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, Public Safety, and Veterans Affairs chaired by Sen. Steven Payne, Sr. convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Tuesday to receive testimony on the status on the influx of crimes throughout the Virgin Islands, challenges of persecuting cases during the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the request to release inmates to reduce jail capacity. Invited testifiers are officials from the Office of the Attorney General, the Law Enforcement Planning Commission (LEPC), and the V.I. Police Department.
As a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, OAG continues to prosecute cases and complete required work to include conducting discovery, interviewing witnesses, hiring and obtaining statements, and negotiating plea deals. However, onsite participation at the Superior Court for bench trials or jury trials is temporarily halted; according to Denise George, Attorney General of the Office of the Attorney General. Furthermore, she stated that all criminal prosecutors are continuing their prosecutorial duties while working remotely from home via telephone in collaboration with officials from the Virgin Islands Police Department. Regarding the release of inmates amid the COVID-19 related concerns expressed by the Bureau of Corrections, George mentioned that OAG opposes the release of violent offenders. However, non-violent offenders may be considered for a pre-trial release. In response to Sen. BlydenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s inquiry as to whether inmates will be temporarily or permanently released, George stated that ultimately the court determines the final decision on the status of the inmate.
Separately, Law Enforcement Planning Commission Director Ray Martinez shared an update on grant monies awarded, funds remaining, and the increase of crimes in the Territory. Overall, the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) awarded LEPC a total of eight grants specified to combat crime, violence against women, prison rape for adults and minors, juvenile delinquency prevention, and substance abuse. For FY 2020, Martinez mentioned that LEPC is awaiting an estimated $650K for a grant award from USDOJ. Meanwhile, LEPC must expend $1,643,676, the balance of the $2,564,614 awarded from FY 2015-2019. Additional grant awards received are $3,186,069 for the Violence Against Women Act for FY 2015-2019 with a pending FY 2020 award of $636k; and $3,867,604 for the Victims Crimes Unit for FY 2019 with an opportunity to obtain $1,493,872 for FY 2020 upon completion of the application process. Regarding the spike of crimes, Martinez indicated that crime reduction can occur with the development of an in-depth Territorial Criminal Justice Plan. Ã¢â‚¬Å“A strategic plan to address violent crimes is a blueprint. The purpose of the plan is for entities to collaborate and communicate for the betterment of the community,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Sen. Payne.
Subsequently, VIPD Commissioner Trevor Velinor stated that to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, VIPD is apart of the Emergency Support Function-13 Team (ESF-13). The purpose of ESF-13 is to enforce the GovernorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s COVID-19 mandates; two of which are to maintain crowd control and social distancing. As a result, thirty-six businesses were closed due to non-compliance. To reduce crime, VIPD is currently partnering with federal agencies. Lastly, VIPD has recruitment challenges due to a negative public image. Ã‚Â However, the department is working towards positively rebranding its image; according to Velinor. Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â ###