The Rules and Judiciary committee met on Thursday to discuss a slew of bills targeting firearms, license plate readers, the Economic Development Program, and more, all of which were advanced to the Committee of the Whole.
Girl Scouts filled the legislative hall on St. Thomas and assisted senators in their administrative duties as the legislators contemplated which bills were to be advanced to the next committee. However, some bills created emotionally charged responses from members of the body.
Bill No. 34-0141 amends the Virgin Islands code to require the Bureau of Corrections and the Virgin Islands Attorney General’s Office to notify victims of crimes of the release of their alleged perpetrator.
According to amendments to the bill, victims are to be notified no later than 15 days before the defendant is released from custody for any reason, no later than 24 hours after learning of the defendant’s actual release, or no later than one hour after being notified that a defendant has escaped from custody. Some members, however, felt that the bill is not needed because there is already a system in place to notify victims.
“The VIPD and the Department of Justice already employ a victim-witness advocate who is responsible for the notification to these victims, even without these requests. This is part of their duties and responsibilities,” said Sen. Kenneth Gittens. “0141 seems to be duplicative as this is already mandated and being carried out. And if people are not doing their job, then we know what we need to do,” Gittens said intensely. He is one of three senators who voted against the bill.
Sens. Genevieve Whitaker and Franklin Johnson Sr. also voted against the bill. Johnson said fiercely that every person who was a victim of a violent crime was notified when he worked in a jail facility in the territory and that the bill is repetitious.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Senate Pres. Donna Frett-Gregory said she was “perplexed” as to why there were two votes by former law enforcement officers against the bill. Other senators felt that though there is a system in place, utilizing another means to inform victims should not be an issue.
Sen. Dwayne DeGraff said that it is not as important as to which organization notifies the victims, but rather that they receive updates expeditiously.
“The victim don’t have that luxury to wait and find out who’s responsibility it is when that person is released,” said DeGraff.
Senators also discussed Bill No. 34-0072, which provides for the declaration of firearm components upon their entry into the Virgin Islands. DeGraff highlighted that by changing some components of a firearm, it gives way for that firearm to be identified as a new firearm.
“If you use your firearm in a crime, whether you’re a licensed or unlicensed firearm owner, and you change out your barrel, then it gives credence to you having a different firearm,” said DeGraff.
Sen. Carla Joseph, however, voted against the bill. “It seems that we are penalizing, in my perspective, persons who have legal guns,” said Joseph. “It’s whether or not this legislation will be able to withstand a constitutional test.”
Senators also discussed Bill No. 34-0170, which relates to incentives for beneficiaries in the Economic Development Program. Bill sponsor, Senate Pres. Frett-Gregory addressed contention towards the bill and mentioned its key components, such as allowing business owners to be employees.
“The [EDA] recognized that we were losing significant revenue because some of these owners, they generate over a million dollars a year in their personal income per year, and that income tax is not being filed inside of the Virgin Islands,” said Frett-Gregory. So if we include it in that number, then we benefit as they file their taxes here in the US Virgin Islands.”
All senators voted in favor of the bill.
Other bills that were forwarded to the Committee of the Whole were:
- Bill No. 34-0142. An Act amending the Virgin Islands Code by adding a subchapter to provide for an automatic license plate reader system to be used as a crime-fighting tool.
- Bill No. 34-0148. An Act honoring and commending LaVerne E. Ragster for her contributions and research efforts to the Virgin Islands.
- Bill No. 34-0154. An Act amending the Virgin Islands code relating to bilingual education to direct the Department of Education to establish and maintain the Bilingual and English Language Development Program in the public schools.
- Bill No. 34-0155 An Act amending the Virgin Islands Code relating to notaries, notarial officers, and notarial acts by adding a subchapter enacting the “Virgin Islands Uniform Law on Notarial Acts (2021).”
- Bill No. 34-0171. An Act amending Virgin Islands Code relating to the service retirement annuity to allow retirees to reenter government service and retain their annuity while paying a contribution to the Retirement System.