Undercurrents: Violent Crime Provokes Strong Reactions

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Can we solve our violent crime problem by sending all the perpetrators off-island?

Last week Gov. Kenneth Mapp devoted a significant portion of a wide-ranging press conference to crime and efforts to curb it. Besides pledging to increase the police presence – hiring more officers and using military police from the National Guard, if necessary – Mapp said he would send large numbers of offenders out of the territory.

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One of his plans is to have the federal government prosecute all crimes involving firearms so that those convicted will be sent to federal prison. “They are not going to do happy time at the Golden Grove facility,” he said. Another of Mapp’s plans is to transfer 50 to 60 percent of the prisoners now incarcerated locally to mainland facilities.

According to attorney Joycelyn Hewlett, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the territory, “There is no question that there is an alarming increase in violent crime.” She said the office is redoubling efforts to address it.

“We do handle a number of gun cases already,” Hewlett said. In fact, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office – the federal and the local Departments of Justice, respectively – have an ongoing agreement. “There’s a process already in place,” she said.

Under that agreement, attorneys from the two departments meet regularly, generally every week, to review upcoming cases and decide whether they should be prosecuted in federal District Court or in the V.I. Superior Court.

One consideration in the decision is whether there is exclusive jurisdiction in a particular case, Hewlett said. That may involve such things as whether there is a prior conviction and whether the alleged crime took place in a given area such as a school zone.

There’s also the question of the penalties under federal or local law. “Superior Court has some very severe gun penalties,” Hewlett said.

Most importantly, she said, the decision “is based on available resources,” since all cases require investigation and court appearances by attorneys.

Hewlett said the U.S. Attorney will continue to coordinate with the Attorney General’s Office on prosecutions, but she said the office also takes other approaches to curbing crime.

“We can’t arrest our way out of violent crime,” she said. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is focused not only on enforcement, she said, but also on prevention and on reentry programs. “It’s a comprehensive approach.”

In the past, the Safe Streets Task Force, a collaboration between the FBI and the Virgin Islands Police Department, has been “very effective” in investigating violent crimes. That group is being reenergized, Hewlett said. The office supports a number of programs for youth designed to deter crime in the first place and also supports post-conviction reentry programs aimed at bringing former inmates together with employers in an effort to cut recidivism.

The issue of resources was at the heart of the governor’s proposal to transfer half or more of the territory’s prisoners to mainland facilities. He said the move would alleviate overcrowding and would save the Virgin Islands money because it costs about twice as much to house a prisoner on-island as off-island.

According to Juel Anderson, public information officer for the Bureau of Corrections, there has been “no discussion with the bureau at this point” concerning a mass transfer of prisoners.

No one was available to comment on the concept, however, since Corrections has been without a director or acting director since its former director resigned in December in the changeover of Government House, Anderson said.

She was able to provide details about the numbers of prisoners and the costs of housing them.

As of Friday, there were 268 prisoners at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix, 134 of them sentenced inmates and 134 detainees awaiting trial or/and sentencing. On St. Thomas, there were 69 detainees and 10 sentenced inmates at the Criminal Justice Complex, and one detainee and 22 sentenced prisoners at the Annex.

It costs $113 a day to house each prisoner at Golden Grove and $115 a day per prisoner at the St. Thomas facilities, she said.

Most of the Virgin Islands prisoners who are currently housed on the mainland are at a facility in Citrus County, Fla., Anderson said. The cost there is $68.96 per day. At the Virginia Department of Corrections it is $83.78 per day (with one special case inmate who costs $224) and at the Sylmar Health and Rehabilitation Facility the cost per day is $319 to $391.

In determining whether a prisoner should be transferred, the bureau typically considers the time left on a sentence, the inmate’s conduct and general management of the facility, she said. The Consent Decree under which Corrections has been operating for years does not specifically address prisoner transfers.

However, Anderson noted, it does address “staffing analysis,” which is a consideration in transfers. In September 2014, when the bureau sent 78 prisoners to mainland facilities, it was because “BOC staffing numbers were too low for the inmate population, which posed a potential security and safety issue for inmates and personnel.”

Anderson said she could not comment on how long it might take to affect a transfer of half or more than half of the prison population.

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