The territory’s Chief Public Defender Samuel Joseph testified to the Legislature Wednesday about the need to speed up the often slow court process, and provide more mental health resources so defendants with behavioral health issues don’t end up jailed indefinitely.
Senators in the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, chaired by Sen. Kenneth Gittens, met to receive an update from the V.I. Office of the Public Defender, which provides free legal representation to indigent criminal defendants.
Joseph said his office has five attorneys in each district, and he personally handles cases. The office is separate from the Office of the Federal Public Defender, which represents clients facing federal charges in U.S. District Court.
As of Feb. 28, there were 516 cases pending in the St. Croix District and 354 in the St. Thomas-St. John district, and Joseph said public defenders handle 50 to 120 cases each. The office is currently representing defendants in 29 murder cases, including 20 on St. Croix and nine on St. Thomas, he said.
There is a “tremendous amount of work required in indigent criminal defense. Notwithstanding, the OTPD continues to fulfill its mandate with tenacity and unwavering conviction. At this time, I would like to publicly recognize the OTPD staff for their hard work and perseverance,” Joseph said.
At-Large Sen. Angel Bolques Jr. said the office, “is responsible for filling the justice gap in the judicial system for those low-income citizens in our territory who may not otherwise be able to afford an attorney, and we appreciate that endeavor.”
Sen. Diane Capehart thanked Joseph for “representing the indigent population, thank you for all that you do for this community.”
Sen. Franklin Johnson, a former corrections officer, asked about the length of time defendants are typically jailed while awaiting trial.
Joseph said they have eight clients in the St. Thomas-St. John District who have been detained for more than a year, and there are 26 in St. Croix.
Johnson asked if some defendants are being held in pretrial detention longer than the time they would have been sentenced to, had they been convicted of the pending charges.
“There are some instances where people are held for longer than what they could have received in terms of sentencing, and where that happens is generally cases involving mental health issues. We’re always pushing though for those persons to be released, that’s just a standing order,” Joseph said.
Johnson asked if he would support his proposed Speedy Trial Act, and Joseph gave enthusiastic support for legislation that would stipulate time limits for when cases must go to trial.
In response to questions from Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger, Joseph explained that most states have a version of the law, “and we don’t have it. What that does is it expands the time frame that a case could be potentially held before the court.”
Sen. Ray Fonseca asked how long it typically takes cases to be resolved, and Joseph said murder cases take an average of two years to go to trial.
Heyliger said Bureau of Corrections officials recently testified that some criminal defendants have been jailed awaiting trial for up to 10 years, and Joseph confirmed that is the case.
All of those jailed for extreme lengths of time have chronic mental illness and cannot be brought to trial, and are often being held in facilities off-island, so “while the cases are technically resolved, it’s not really resolved because you have to keep doing updates,” Joseph said.
Heyliger asked what senators can do to help speed things along so mentally ill people aren’t detained indefinitely.
“This is a discussion that’s been had numerous times, and there has been some action and movement with the passage of the first behavioral health bill,” Joseph said. “I think that will actually help.”
Joseph said that in cases involving mental illness, “you have to have the appropriate documentation and you have to follow certain steps to ensure that you’re not violating your client’s rights,” so there are layers of complexity involved.
“But it still comes down to mental health facilities and practitioners in the territory. Because it’s really just a handful,” Joseph said.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory asked if Joseph would support “ban the box” legislation that would prohibit employers from forcing job applicants to immediately divulge criminal convictions before reviewing their other qualifications.
Joseph said the legislation would be helpful and agreed that “after you’ve been convicted, who realistically is going to give you a job?” and said even those who have only been arrested face major repercussions.
“They either didn’t or couldn’t get an expungement and that charge haunts them for the rest of their life,” Joseph said, reminding senators that anyone could potentially face serious criminal charges that are later dismissed.
Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. asked about the “untimely disposition of cases” and the effect.
“We shouldn’t look at it in a silo, there are a number of different persons and entities involved,” Joseph said.
He said he doesn’t want to cast aspersions but sees cases “being bottlenecked or not being resolved quick enough based on the AG’s actions, and that’s just what it is.”
Joseph said he’s discussed it with the Attorney General’s Office on “multiple occasions,” and had numerous meetings with the previous Presiding Judge Harold Willocks.
There has been some improvement “but not to my satisfaction,” he said, and recalled one recent case in which “the prosecutor kept asking for continuances and kept asking for continuances.”
Francis also asked how they can help break “the school to prison pipeline.”
“We need to eviscerate it as a community, it needs to be broken,” Joseph said.
Some juvenile offenders “grow up into the adult system,” and it’s the community’s responsibility to help children succeed, he said.
“Oftentimes we say that children are the future, but we’re not setting them up, and what future do we actually have?” Joseph said.
The office does public outreach that isn’t required “because we see the impact it has on the community,” Joseph said. “We are part of the community as well, so we want a better and brighter tomorrow.”
Joseph said the office represents about 90% of all criminal defendants, with the remaining 10% those who hired private counsel, or were appointed a private attorney because the public defender’s office had a conflict with the case.
Joseph said they’re working to recruit and hire additional attorneys, but “unfortunately there’s not a large amount of people that want to go into the public workspace as attorneys, and even moreso as public defenders.”
Salary “has something to do with it,” because private attorneys make more money, but “we pay on the higher end in terms of attorneys, than most of the government agencies,” with the lowest-paid attorney receiving $92,000 annually, Joseph said.
Johnson asked about his biggest challenge, and Joseph said the slow pace of cases can be difficult.
“Overall, we are in the courtrooms day in and day out zealously advocating for our clients at a level that most attorneys don’t even know of,” Joseph said.
He also clarified that the current website is located at OTPDvi.gov. Joseph said the old website, publicdefendervi.com, is no longer being used and they are working to shut it down.