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USVI bill seeks to ease punishment for juveniles who commit murder

- Bill held in rules committee after legislators agreed it needed work
A bill seeking to add new language to a current law regarding juveniles who commit murder in the US Virgin Islands (USVI), sparked passionate debate between opponents and proponents of the measure during a Rules Committee hearing on Thursday, June 22, 2017. Photo: Pinterest

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, St Thomas, USVI— A bill sponsored by US Virgin Islands (USVI) Senator Sammuel Sanes that is seeking to add new language to a current law regarding juveniles who commit murder, sparked passionate debate between opponents and proponents of the measure during a Rules Committee hearing on Thursday, June 22, 2017 among them testifiers and senators alike, arguing for and against the changes.

Bill No. 32-0103, was eventually held in committee, because lawmakers, including the bill’s sponsor, agreed that it needed work.

The current Virgin Islands law regarding the matter, says that once someone commits premeditated murder, this person is to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole — regardless of age. Mr Sanes’s measure, however, seeks to make drastic changes to the law. Part of it reads, “But a person who commits murder in the first degree while under eighteen years of age, shall be imprisoned for not less than 15 years, but not for life without parole.”

That language was acceptable to the Department of Human Services and Rashida Rosario-Daniel, deputy commissioner of Juvenile Prevention and Rehabilitation Services, an arm of DHS Ms. Rosario-Daniel explained that many juveniles who commit crimes have had trauma growing up, including poverty, rape, and other ills that affect their upbringing. Those challenges were cause to consider parole and other limits on sentences for offenses committed by juveniles, DHS argued.

But Attorney General Claude E. Walker testified forcefully against the bill’s changes, and suggested instead adding language that would offer the possibility of parole for a juvenile, but not the broader changes sought in the measure. Mr Walker also pushed back against the notion that if a juvenile committed a crime, that the juvenile in question most likely was a victim of childhood trauma.

“If we look at it from the perspective from the Department of Human Services, we’re thinking that in all instances its brokenness,” Mr Walker said, referring to juveniles who struggle with poverty and abuse while growing up. “There are cases where you have bad seeds and we have to acknowledge that. [But] we can’t take the position that every time there’s a murder involving a 17-year-old, [or a] 16-year-old, that it’s somebody who was sexually abused or somebody who is poor, when we have well documented cases of thrill killings.” Mr Walker later said assuming that all homicides committed by juveniles are perpetrated by the poor, is an insult to the poor.

While the attorney general was blunt in his delivery of the Department of Justice’s stance, Senator Janette Millin Young took a different route to explain why she was not in favor of the measure, stating that the courts and their judges — just as the Legislature deliberates situations through hearings — should be allowed to make decisions based on their own judgement, and not be limited by Senate action.

Mr Sanes, agreeing that the bill needed work, nonetheless said the Senate will eventually have to act on the matter, pointing to other states that have passed similar legislation. Speaking along similar lines as Mr Sanes, Senator Novelle E. Francis Jr, Rules Committee chair, said the current practice of simply locking away criminals who commit heavy crimes with little opportunity for rehabilitation must end.

Voting to hold the bill in committee were all the lawmakers who are part of the Rules Committee, bar Senator Jean Forde who was absent.

Changes in Life Sentences for Juveniles

In 2005, the US Supreme Court forbade the death penalty for juveniles. In 2010 the Supreme Court limited life sentences without parole for young criminals who commit murder. It was ruled unconstitutional to give a criminal who was under 18 at the time of the crime, a life term in prison with no chance for parole for crimes other than murder.

In 2012, the Supreme Court continued its trend of holding that children cannot be automatically punished the same way as adult criminals without considering their age and other factors, by further ruling that juveniles under the age of 18 who commit murder may not receive mandatory life sentences with no chance for parole. The 2010 ruling immediately placed the local law at odds with the US Supreme Court, supporting Mr Sanes’s stance that changes must be made. The question, now, is how far should the Senate go in limiting the authority of the judicial branch through legislation.

The Supreme Court ruled that each case must be decided on its own merits and the sentence imposed must take into account the child’s age and other factors. The ruling allows judges and juries to consider a juvenile’s age when they hand down sentences for some of the harshest crimes, instead of making life in prison without parole an automatic sentence. The ruling left open the possibility that judges can sentence juveniles to life without parole in individual cases of murder, but said state and federal laws cannot automatically impose such a sentence.

The court recognised that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system, saying that mandatory death-in-prison sentences don’t allow for consideration of the unique status of children and their potential for change.

3 Responses to “USVI bill seeks to ease punishment for juveniles who commit murder”

  • ..... (23/06/2017, 19:54) Like (2) Dislike (0) Reply
    Lock them up
  • qc (23/06/2017, 22:41) Like (2) Dislike (0) Reply
    . So it really looks like this bill has no chance of gaining a majority, not matter what Sanes tries to do.
  • Wharf Rat (25/06/2017, 08:57) Like (0) Dislike (0) Reply
    So you want to try them as adults huh? Give them indeterminate sentences which should include mandatory rehabilitation and psychological treatment and parole eligibility after a certain period of incarceration. You cannot make this easy street walking. We all know to well that some of these youngsters are stone killers. The AG in essence is correct.

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