1995Public Service

Solutions: A 14-point Formula To Fight Crime

By: 
MELVIN CLAXTON
December 22, 1994

A six-month Daily News investigation of crime in the Virgin Islands uncovered gross inefficiencies and failures in the institutions that deal with criminals.

These failures have contributed to the territory's growing crime crisis.

It was clear that even if such social and economic factors as poverty, unemployment and poor education were eliminated, crime would still flourish because sloppy and unproductive law enforcement and criminal justice would give it an open door.

The problems identified in the series can be corrected, experts and law enforcement officials agree. Among the possible solutions:

Evidence Room

  • Assign custodians around the clock to protect the evidence and be sure it is not stolen, lost or tainted by mishandling.
  • Carefully catalogue and tag each item placed in the Evidence Room.
  • Follow FBI guidelines for storing evidence.
  • Require signed receipts for all items taken from the Evidence Room.
  • Require periodic inventory of the evidence items in the room.
  • Destroy all evidence when case is closed.

"The Evidence Room is one of the most crucial areas in the police department," says Ron Nelson, chairman of the National Association of Police Departments.

"If the integrity of this area is undermined, the ability to win convictions and ultimately fight crime is seriously jeopardized."

Police hiring and discipline

  • Require that background checks on new recruits be thorough. If former employers won't provide information, interview neighbors and former co-workers as the FBI does before it hires agents.
  • Reject all recruits who fail any aspect of the police training requirements. Now, recruits can fail in the Police Academy and still be hired.
  • Require that all recruits pass a psychological evaluation conducted by a certified psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • Require that all officers undergo annual in-service training and biannual weapons recertification.
  • Create a civilian review board to investigate and review charges against police officers and top brass. Hold the hearings in public to help build public confidence and trust in the department.
  • "It is important to have civilian input into how the department is run," says Frank Davis, chairman of the now disbanded Police Advisory Board. "Every time there was something critical of the department, police on the board would get defensive."
  • Add officers to the seriously understaffed Internal Affairs Division.
  • Renegotiate the police union contract to take disciplinary actions out of the contract's control. Make sure police brass can fire bad apples and make the firing stick.
  • Create a community relations division in the Police Department to answer inquiries about police actions and policies.

"The public must see the department as on their side," says Territorial Police Chief Delroy Richards.

"It is imperative that we renew the public's confidence in the force."

Keeping track of criminals

  • Create a local computerized crime network linking police, courts and probation offices. This would list records of criminals, catch parole violators and make background checks easy.

"We need to know when criminals on probation and parole are picked up again for crimes," says Territorial Probation Officer Carmen George.

"A computerized system is essential."

Juvenile crime

  • Make public all records of juveniles 15 and older who are charged with violent crimes.
  • Provide full high school equivalency programs and extensive vocational training in the juvenile detention center.
  • Make early release from the detention center contingent on completion of educational programs.
  • Automatically transfer juveniles to adult court if they are charged with homicide, rape, first-degree assault or kidnapping.
  • Impose a mandatory prison sentence for gun possession by a juvenile.

"Juvenile crime is a major concern for everyone," says Anita Christian, director of the Police Department's Juvenile Division on St. Croix. "The public needs to know the danger these kids pose."

Prosecution

  • Raise the starting salary for assistant attorneys general from $32,000 to $40,000 to attract highly qualified, experienced prosecutors.

  • Accept plea bargains only if the defendant would get at least two-thirds the sentence he originally faced.
  • Appoint an attorney general who is an experienced prosecutor with proven skills and judgment.

  • Select a qualified solicitor general and let that person handle the government's civil cases.
  • Require that all prosecutors pass the V.I. bar within a year of joining the office.
  • Computerize all record-keeping and case-tracking systems in the Attorney General's Office.
  • Require that all prosecutors get full approval from supervisors before they ask for cases to be dismissed.

Truth in sentencing

  • Ban suspended sentences for two-time offenders.
  • Ban suspended sentences and probation for all serious violent crime, including murder, rape, armed robbery, first-degree assault and kidnapping.
  • Forbid any sentences that circumvent the habitual offender rule.

"The courts play a crucial role in the justice system," says Territorial Court Chief Judge Verne Hodge.

"A judge must always balance fairness, compassion and public interest. Often the three are not compatible."

Punishment

  • Make people certain that they will pay a penalty if they break the law.

"To be effective, punishment must be efficient, quick and sure," says psychologist Tom Tyne.

Prisons

  • Expand the prison to accommodate the increased number of convicts that better police work, tougher prosecution and less lenient sentencing will send into the prison.
  • Make education or vocational classes mandatory.
  • Provide regular and frequent individual and group counseling and behavior modification therapy to all inmates.

Probation and parole

  • Double the Probation Office staff from five to 10 officers.
  • Hire an employment specialist on each island to help parolees and those on probation find jobs.
  • Maintain round-the-clock monitoring of suspects who are released on electronic surveillance. The overtime should be paid for by the people being monitored since they will be privileged to enjoy partial freedom via the electronic monitoring.
  • Require the court to provide the Probation Office with a daily list of all people arraigned in court.

Parole Board

  • Adopt clear and tough guidelines for granting parole.
  • Require that inmates complete an education program or acquire a job skill, plus meet other existing standards, to become eligible for parole.
  • Appoint a new Parole Board consisting of retirees with extensive criminal justice experience: a defense attorney, a prosecutor and a police officer. This is common practice elsewhere and creates a highly effective Parole Board, according to Ron Nelson, chairman of the National Association of Police Departments, and others.

Guns

  • Demand that the Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco Bureau immediately send agents to the territory.
  • Restrict licenses to carry guns so that only people with acceptable reasons will be carrying guns.

  • Increase the penalty for possession of unlicensed guns.

U.S. Customs

  • Work through the delegate to Congress to legalize Customs searches of luggage entering the territory so the Virgin Islands can shut down the flow of guns into the territory.
  • Require every vessel entering the territory to undergo a Customs inspection.

  • Increase the number of Customs agents to ensure that agents are posted at all the ports in the territory.
  • Use X-ray equipment to scan luggage coming into the territory.

Education incentives

  • Make tuition at the University of the Virgin Islands free for V.I. students who maintain a B or better high school grade point average. This is successful at state colleges and universities.
  • Insist that teachers provide biweekly reports on students' progress, grades and behavior so parents can deal with problems early.
  • Introduce special training to enable teachers and counselors to spot kids in trouble.

"It is quite possible by fifth or sixth grade to predict with a great degree of accuracy which kids will be problems," says psychologist Tom Tyne.

"Those kids on the outskirts who are being disruptive in class, challenging their teachers, getting attention from their peers -- the lines are pretty much drawn."

Crime prevention

  • Provide free, early counseling for problem kids and their parents.
  • Provide money for recreational programs in high-crime areas.
  • Fund drug education programs in schools and housing communities.
  • Create a year-round boot camp-style program for borderline kids.

"We have to put a greater emphasis on preventing crime," says Assistant Attorney General Elwood York.

"Our office is like the coroner's: When we get involved, the deed is done and there's a body."