Justice Minister updates Parliament “There will never be a crime free St. Maarten”

POSTED: 11/27/13 12:33 PM

St. Maarten – “There will never be a crime free St. Maarten, that time has passed,” Minister of Justice Dennis Richardson said as he gave a presentation on the state of affairs of his ministry to the Permanent Committee on Justice in Parliament yesterday, but great gains and improvements have been made in the past few years, he demonstrated. The committee is chaired by United People’s Party (UP) MP Johan Leonard, and its members are Democratic Party MP Leroy de Weever, National Alliance (NA) MP George Pantophlet, and independent MP Patrick Illidge.  The meeting was also attended by independent MP Frans Richardson and NA MP Dr. Lloyd Richardson.

He gave an overview of where the island was at the start of its new political status in 2010, the current state and progress of the justice system, and its future; however, he left out the constitutional court since it did not exist in 2010. He said, though, that because of its recent rulings, its “usefulness has been established.”

The minister said quite frankly to the committee that “St. Maarten was in bad shape in the beginning” and that “as of 10-10-10 there was little or nothing” after the dismantling of the Netherlands Antilles and the island assumed full responsibility for its own law enforcement matters. Minister Richardson described how the island’s justice ministry was terribly understaffed and underequipped to tackle many of the pressing issues facing the young country. He said the task before him as justice minister was “a bigger challenge than assumed in first instance.”

“We had an understaffed, underequipped, and neglected police force of 133 FTEs, full time equivalents” and a “small and inadequate outfitted immigration administration unit that was primarily busy with the issuing of permits. An understaffed, rundown prison” as well as an understaffed prosecution service, and the “local court of justice was hampered in its operations because the court and the members of the court of St. Maarten ran into bureaucratic and financial problems of the country Netherlands Antilles,” Minister Richardson explained.

Essentially every department St. Maarten inherited as its own country in 2010 was limited, understaffed, and poorly equipped for the challenges they faced. “No youth detention possibilities, no financial investigation unit, no national detective unit, no department of justice, no mental health care for detainees” compounded things.

“And this notwithstanding promises that were made 2 years prior to 10-10-10 that would assist us in developing our organizational units. Promises that were clearly not kept,” presumably by the Netherlands, the minister pointed out, only further increasing the daunting struggle St. Maarten already faced.

However, vast and measurable improvements have been made since achieving its new constitutional status in October of 2010, the minister highlighted. More staff has been put in place, more police officers, including the training of community police officers, and better equipment. There are now 190 full time officers, for example. “Police community officers have significantly helped,” Minister Richardson said. Better crime fighting techniques and improved surveillance measures, too, have been implemented.

As a result, crime rates have seen an overall decline, Minister Richardson demonstrated to the committee with statistics, especially murder rates, which soared to a frightening level in 2011, the results of a murderous rampage by two violent offenders and a deadly gang feud over illicit drugs.

Police have paid more attention to burglaries and break-ins, which are trending downward. The quality of police work, he said, has increased and there is a higher rate of solving crimes, pointing out to the rapid arrest and conviction of the King double murder. Yet attempted murder still remains a problem. “There is a lot of work out there to be done,” the minister said.

More capital investment is needed. And he strongly urged for the creation of a youth detention center, which can properly separate young offenders from older, more hardened criminals. He said a building for a youth detention center has been found and the funds for it already have been allocated in the 2014 budget, all it will need is the approval of Parliament.

Other aspects of the justice ministry have improved as well. Public prosecutors will increase to 5 as of 2014. Medical treatment of prisoners will increase. There is now a national detective department, and financial unit that investigates white collar crimes.

The minister said there is an overall push for better detection and prevention instead of simply adding more prison space, which will only burden the island financially in the long run and not address the deeper causes of criminal behavior.

“We have a bad image when it comes to human trafficking and smuggling,” the minister lamented. Urgent steps will be taken in the areas of border patrol and immigration, customs, and an increased presence of the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard, “better surveillance” and the “rooting out” of the so-called “tunnels” or routes that smugglers use.

“We are making great strides forward when it comes to prostitution,” Richardson said. The minister explained that the justice department is making an effort in telling brothel workers their rights as well as the limits brothel owners have. Confiscating passports, for example, is illegal, or limiting and restricting a person’s movements.

Greater regional cooperation is in play, the minister outlined. He mentioned his recent trip to Colombia where he met with US Attorney General Eric Holder and other ministers from the region and a follow up will occur in February next year. “I think it’s important. We already cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) of the US. That will intensify.”

The most pressing issue overall for the Ministry of Justice, Richardson pressed, was still the lack of adequately skilled staff.





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