The maximum sentence for using a minor’s or a senior person’s identifying information to steal will increase to 15 years in prison, regardless of how much or little is stolen, if a bill approved in committee Thursday is enacted into law.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety, chaired by Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., approved two bills sponsored by Sen. Sammuel Sanes: the stricter identification-based fraud penalties and a measure putting unlicensed possession of assault rifles in the same category as machine guns and sawed-off shotguns, and prohibiting probation, parole or reduced sentences for those caught with them.
Sanes introduced the bill proposing new penalties for this type of fraud, which in recent years has come to be called "identity theft," saying the bill "seeks to rectify a heinous crime being perpetrated on … our minors."
Sanes said there is already a law criminalizing identity theft as a separate type of fraud, but his bill would increase its scope to "address what is being done to minors."
He offered as an example a case in which a five-year-old has their identity used to apply for Medicaid and not finding out for years. He said it can affect someone when they apply for employment, college or the military. Because children do not undergo background checks, credit checks and so on very often, the fraud can go undetected for years, then be difficult to unravel, he said.
Acting Attorney General Claude Walker, Assistant Human Services Commissioner Janet Turnbull-Krigger and AARP volunteer Magda Finch all testified in support of the measure, saying seniors and minors were vulnerable to this sort of fraud.
"The effects of having one’s identity stolen can be devastating. But, to an individual who is just beginning to set off on life’s journey, the effects can be even more crippling. A young man or woman whose identity has been stolen will have trouble getting student loans, gaining employment in certain industries, and be unable to focus on whatever goals or dreams they may have had," Walker said.
Asked how often this type of fraud happens with minors, Walker said he would have to get back with the information, but added, "it is a problem." Sometimes it is the child’s family members or even parents committing the fraud, he said.
Existing law sets one set of sentences for identity theft and harsher sentences for "aggravated identity theft," if the person affected is over the age of 60. It sets a range of maximum sentences for aggravated identity theft, depending on how much is stolen. If less than $300 is stolen, the maximum sentence is four years in prison. If more than $100,000 is stolen, the maximum sentence is 15 years. Under Sanes’ proposal, the maximum sentence is 15 years regardless of amount, and theft using a minor’s identification would also be included under "aggravated identity theft."
Chief Public Defender Samuel Joseph testified against the bill, arguing that increasing penalties was not necessarily the solution.
"Although identity theft is a problem that plagues our society, we must be cautious not to overreact by implementing laws that are unduly harsh and not comparable to that of the offenses committed," Joseph said. "We should seek to eliminate all mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes. Notwithstanding the alleged acts, penalties should be focused on restoration and rehabilitation. We cannot continue take the lock them up and throw away the key approach.”
Introducing his assault rifle bill, Sanes said it was "another tool to fight the battle" against violent crime in the territory.
"Think back to the atrocities that have occurred. … At some point we have to take a stand," Sanes said.
"The system is not working. And yes this bill might seem harsh to some. But it might also in the near future save lives. And I am tired of picking up the newspaper and going to that section where they have listed all the individuals who passed away and sometimes have of them are under (age) 45. We really really have to start doing something about it," he said.
Walker testified in support of the bill, saying there was no use for this type of weapon other than violent criminal activity. "One type is called a "street-sweeper" … That’s not for hunting," Walker said.
Joseph testified against the bill, again arguing that increasing penalties is not always the answer, and that having a firearm should not be treated the same as using one.
"The illegal use of firearms is the problem and our current law already addresses that. Harsher penalties for persons who are not charged with using a firearm is counterproductive," Joseph said.
He also opposed removing the ability of judges to give probation or reduced sentences.
"To remove the discretion currently afforded to judges will have a devastating impact on our community. The trickle-down effect results in fatherless and motherless homes and further serves to cripple our community. … If the purpose of the proposed bill is to curb gun violence, removing discretion to help individuals who have not been engaged in gun violence is not the answer. The proposed bill in its current form will have ramifications that do not foster the growth of our community," Joseph said.
Both bills were approved unanimously.
Present were: Sens. Sanes, Francis, Jean Forde, Kenneth Gittens, Justin Harrigan, Almando "Rocky"Liburd and Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly.