Feb. 7, 2006 — A bill to enact mandatory regulations for motorized recreational boats was unanimously passed by senators at a Committee on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice meeting held on St. Croix Tuesday.
The bill creates an educational course on federal boating safety procedures and mandates that boat operators carry personal safety devices, such as life jackets, for passengers under 17 years of age. The bill also states that local boating rental agencies provide a quick safety course for passengers prior to renting or leasing recreational vessels, including motorized dinghies and jet skis.
Lucia R. Francis, chief of enforcement at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said the course is currently available at DPNR offices in the territory, along with local Coast Guard stations, and would take approximately 24 hours to complete. Individuals completing the course would receive a certificate approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.
"Right now, we are not charging for this class," Francis said, adding, however, that a fee might be implemented in the future.
Francis testified that this bill, if enacted, would not apply to commercial vessels such as day charter boats. She said such vessels are covered under federal Coast Guard safety regulations.
Senators did have concerns over two sections of the bill. The first imposes a $1,000 fine for boat operators not carrying life jackets, while the second mandates that boat operators born after 1980 have to be certified in the course.
When asked, Francis said that younger boat operators exhibit "more reckless behavior" on the water, which can result in boating accidents. During her testimony, Francis said four boating accidents were reported in the territory for 2005. "However, we have already surpassed that amount for 2006," she said.
Francis further explained that the $1,000 fine would only be applied to boat operators after a warning had been issued from DPNR to bring life jackets aboard the vessel. "If we spot a vessel without life jackets for passengers, what we will do is provide them with life jackets and issue a warning," she said. "If we catch the same vessel operating without lifejackets in the future, then we will issue the fine."
A letter sent to the Legislature by Mark V. Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that 47 U.S. states currently have similar legislation in place due to a high percentage of boating incidents on the mainland.
Rosenker said recent national statistics show that "as few as 7 percent of boat operators participate in some kind of boat safety education programs," which has resulted in more than 3,000 boating-related injuries or deaths.
Rosenker also said that 90 percent of drowning fatalities in 2004 could have been prevented if recreational vessels carried "some kind of life jacket" for passengers.
Francis said that if the bill were signed into law, DPNR would launch a six-month public information campaign to educate residents about the regulations prior to enforcement.
In other Senate news, a bill establishing a mandatory reading program for inmates in the Bureau of Corrections was held in committee Tuesday.
According to Sen. Liston Davis, the bill's sponsor, the program is designed to target "functionally illiterate inmates" who currently read below a sixth-grade level. Davis said the program would provide these individuals "with a certain life skill which would allow them to be productive citizens in society upon their release from prison."
Davis added that participation in the program could favorably influence when an inmate would be eligible for parole.
Joseph Ponteen, director of the Bureau of Corrections, told Davis that while he supported the intent of the bill, he was concerned that only certain inmates could participate in the program. "This bill states that inmates convicted of such things as murder, rape, or arson can't participate," Ponteen told Davis. "And it seems to me that those are the individuals we should focus on. I certainly don't want one inmate not being able to benefit from learning how to read because of this criteria."
Ponteen said the bill also mandates that the bureau's director has 90 days after an inmate is released from prison to find them a job. "That puts a lot of pressure on the director," Ponteen said. "And to fulfill a mandate like that, I would need more staff. I would also need to work closely with members of the business community to find out what jobs are available, and that takes resources we don't currently have."
Ponteen also said that some of the provisions listed in the bill are already components of the bureau's Inmate Re-entry Program. He said the bureau already tests the reading abilities of inmates when they enter the prison system and provides GED testing. "We also have special classes for inmates who read below an eighth-grade level," Ponteen added.
Davis said officers at the Bureau of Corrections told him they were concerned about the status of the inmate re-entry program. "The officers say this thing is practically non-existent," Davis said.
Ponteen said Corrections currently does not have any money to educate inmates. "We have over 600 prisoners and very few employees," he explained. "We get no money in our budget for doing this – we have one full-time teacher and a lot of volunteers. So, to get a reading program started, we would need to have adequate resources."
Osbert Potter, executive director of WTJX-Channel 12, said his station would be able to help Corrections with teaching inmates. Potter said channel 12 is currently airing a GED series, which prepares individuals for testing in math, science, reading, writing, and social studies. "I've already talked to the bureau and told them that we can work to schedule the programs at their convenience," Potter added. "We can also set up a communications system for Corrections so that they wouldn't have to purchase cable."
Potter told senators that a $22,000 appropriation would be needed to purchase equipment for hooking up the system. The money would also be used to purchase 100 sets of GED manuals for the inmates to use.
In other action, senators unanimously approved a bill to regulate the use of segway human transporters – a fuel-efficient electric scooter for use in pedestrian areas – throughout the territory. The bill allows the transporters to be used for tours around downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Present at Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Craig W. Barshinger, Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Louis P. Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Usie R. Richards, and Ronald E. Russell.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. was absent.
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