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Women Voters Make Judicial Reforms, Accountability Top Priority

April 22, 2007 — Underscoring the need for accountability in all branches of government, members of the League of Women Voters set forth an aggressive two-year agenda at their annual meeting over the weekend, particularly focusing on reforms to the territory's judicial system.
Speaking during the event, which was held over the weekend at Palm Court Harborview Hotel on St. Thomas, Gov. John deJongh Jr. echoed the organization's concerns and questioned the effectiveness of a "criminal justice system that releases people into our communities without regard to future consequences."
DeJongh's comments and the League's concerns come on the heels of a two-week community-wide debate about decisions made by V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall. Most recently, residents have been up in arms about Kendall's decision to release a man later charged with murder. Daniel Castillo, 30, was charged with aggravated assault and battery in early March, and Kendall let him go on his own recognizance. (See "Attorney General Confirms Charges Against Castillo, Says Victim Knew Him.")
Since his release, Castillo has been brought up on first- and second-degree murder charges in the death of 12-year-old Laquina K. Hennis, whose body was found nearly two weeks ago at an abandoned building in Sugar Estate.
While residents have taken to the radio airwaves demanding that Kendall be removed from the bench, League members over the weekend explored the authority given to the territory's Judicial Disabilities Commission — a five-member body that has the ability to retire or remove a judge sitting on the V.I. Superior or Supreme courts.
At present, the commission has four sitting members and is chaired by Sen. Ronald E. Russell. Other members include attorney Andrew Capdeville, Robert O'Connor and local labor leader Luis "Tito" Morales.
Since the death of St. Croix businessman Mario de Chabert in 2001, the commission has functioned without a full complement of members.
This will soon change, deJongh said during Saturday's meeting. "I have one appointment left to the Judicial Disabilities Commission," he said. "I have to do it, and then they will have a full board."
Focusing on some of the territory's other pressing needs, deJongh also outlined plans designed to streamline the local Education and Police departments, and pledged to be conscious about preserving the local environment while promoting economic-development initiatives.
Calling public safety "the first mandate of government," deJongh said that his administration will "do whatever it takes" to aggressively recruit and hire qualified officers, restructure the Police department, maximize the use of federal resources and establish border patrols.
Efforts also need to be made to beef up the department's recruitment and retention — ensuring that prospective officers make it out of training and onto the force, he said. "When you have a test taken by 104 of our young people and only 14 pass, you know we have a problem," he said.
Shifting the focus to education, deJongh added that building more career and technical schools throughout the territory may help to alleviate this concern and give students an opportunity to "look at something else other than college prep as a method by which they want to succeed."
Over the past few years, issues of child development and the quality of learning in local schools have been put on the back-burner, replaced by a focus on school maintenance, deJongh added.
"I don't propose falling into that trap," he said. "Yes, we must improve our facilities, but it must not end there. Our education system has to be accountable for the education of each child, and we must invest in professional development to improve our teachers' ability to grapple with the challenges they face every day."
DeJongh cited the need to invest in early-childhood education, understand why students are dropping out of school and create institutions that enable those individuals to obtain their high school diplomas.
Responding to comments and questions from long-time League member Mavis Brady, who suggested that the government look at providing more incentives for local teachers, deJongh said he supported streamlining the teacher-certification process and giving the commissioner of Education more time to work alongside the local Board of Education.
Shifting more responsibility to the department's superintendents would allow for more harmony between both entities, and free up more time for the commissioner to take part in other initiatives, such as managing federal resources, he said.
In terms of economic development, deJongh gave League members a balanced agenda, saying that the government should preserve its natural resources while seeking to address critical issues such as energy, water and solid waste.
Throughout the meeting, League members said they would look to address similar issues over the next two years, and will soon focus their efforts on the upcoming constitutional convention.
Wrapping up the event, the organization also elected a new set of administrative officers, including:
President: Eleanor Cerge, who will replace long-time League member Erva Denham
First vice-president: Linda Wymer
Secretary: Mavis Brady
Treasurer: Margaret Quetel
Board members:
Phyllis Wallace
Norma Levin
Ariel Farrington
Continuing board members:
Second vice-president: Gwen-Marie Moolenaar
Director: Chaneel Callwood-Daniels
Director: Patricia Hector
Director: Christie O'Neal
Director: Denyce Singleton
Ex-Officio (two years): Erva Denham
Ex-Officio (one year): Rosalie Simmonds-Ballentine
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