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Leepan defends new vandalism law

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PRECINCT 1 Rep. Joseph Leepan T. Guerrero disagrees with the chief prosecutor’s comment that the new vandalism law “has become a serious problem.”

Guerrero introduced House Bill 20-2, which was signed by the governor on March 21, 2020 and became Public Law 21-18.

According to Chief Prosecutor John Bradley, the new law “limits the seriousness of the charge and punishment.”

In response, Guerrero told Variety in an email  that the new law provides that the crime of criminal mischief can be punished by six months in jail, a fine up to $1000, and at least 40 hours of community service.

“Does that sound like the seriousness of the crime is limited?” he asked. “Considering the lack of personal injury or threats of violence, six months in jail is fairly serious for committing a crime against property.”  

Moreover, Guerrero said, under the new law, the penalties for vandalism are severe in terms of fines and actual community service — the individual can be ordered to perform 40 to 120 hours of community service, depending on the offense.

“It is the job of the courts and the probation officers to ensure that if someone does not have the means to pay restitution, that is where the community service comes into play,” he said.

Restitution is always permitted by CNMI law and the Victims Bill of Rights, he added.

“I understand the need to make the victim whole and for people to be reasonably punished, but I do not appreciate the implication that we should throw poor people in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay a fine or restitution,” Guerrero said.

He said he introduced H.N. 21-2 “to separate the crimes of vandalism and criminal mischief in order to give the prosecutors flexibility to charge crimes and treat the offenders differently.”

The crime of criminal mischief was not repealed, he added. “It still exists. During the legislative process, there was no comment by the AG’s office that expressed these concerns that I am now hearing in the media. The Office of the Public Defender submitted comment that the penalties in my bill were too severe. So now more than a year after the bill was introduced and considered by the Judiciary and Government Operations Committee, is passed by the Senate, and becomes law, the AG’s office has concerns?  Perhaps we need the AG’s office to be more focused on doing justice as opposed to making comments after the fact.”

Bradley, for his part, told Variety:  “As Representative Guerrero notes, the remaining version of criminal mischief does have a punishment of up to six months imprisonment. However, the longer period of imprisonment for very expensive deliberate damage was repealed. Destroying a brand-new Toyota Tundra, for example, has the same punishment range as breaking a window. That’s a big change from the previous law, which held vandals more accountable by the value of the damage.”

More importantly, Bradley said, the Legislature repealed the most useful form of criminal mischief, which made it a crime if a defendant “intentionally or knowingly causes damage to property of another.”

That offense, he said, was replaced with vandalism, which is defined as “action involving destruction, damage, and/or defacing public or private property.”

“And for vandalism, there is no imprisonment as a punishment option. Only a fine and community service. That, too, is a big change and likely will raise concerns for victims of crime,” Bradley added.

No one wants anyone imprisoned for poverty, the chief prosecutor said.

“However, these property crimes involve deliberate destruction of property, causing a victim to lose valuable cars, windows, and other property and undergo financial loss. Unfortunately, most criminals are influenced into paying off restitution only by the threat of a greater punishment. Without that threat, many of these orders of restitution will remain unenforced,” Bradley said.

“The Legislature, of course, gets to say how the law is written. And perhaps all these changes are exactly as the Legislature intended,” he added.

“But sometimes there are unintended consequences that can be addressed through amendments.

“I agree with Representative Guerrero as to the need for more comment from interested parties before legislation is passed. I would be glad to get more involved in that process if provided notice of pending legislation.”

Bradley at the same time extends his “sincere apologies if my comments have caused any confusion or distress. My purpose and intent is to speak on behalf of victims of crime and to simply keep the public informed. I extend a hand of friendship to Representative Guerrero and look forward to meeting with him.”

 Bradley raised the issue following a string of new cases involving damage to property.

 

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