Commish: Mandatory minimum 5-year jail time for drug conviction not enough
Police Commissioner Le’i Sonny Thompson has voiced his support of a Senate bill, which mandates a minimum five-year imprisonment for anyone convicted of delivering, dispensing, distributing, possession with intent to deliver, dispense or distribute, produce or manufacture a controlled substance.
Le’i appeared Tuesday morning for a House Public Safety/Homeland Security committee hearing, chaired by vice chairman Rep. Veevalu Meauta Lauoi Mageo, on a bill that has been passed by the Senate, and sponsored by President Gaoteote Tofau Palaie.
Provision of current law (ASCA 13.1020) Prohibited Actions, states in part that it is unlawful for any person to deliver, dispense, distribute, possess with intent to deliver, dispense, or distribute, produce, or manufacture a controlled substance.
Any person who violates this section is guilty of a crime, and upon conviction may be imprisoned for not more that 20 years or fined not more than $20,000 - or both.
However, the Senate bill seeks to amend that, saying, that any person who violates this section is guilty and upon conviction “shall” be imprisoned “for not less than 5 years” and not more than 20 years, or fined not more than $20,000 — or both.
Le’i told the committee that while he fully supports the bill, he believes the sentence is not enough to punish those who violate local drug laws. He said other Pacific nations have harsher punishments than American Samoa, pointing to Guam, that imposes a mandatory sentence of 20 years imprisonment, and neighboring Samoa where a life sentence is handed down for these types of crime.
The Commissioner told the committee that the drug problem is everywhere in the territory, and many families, including adults, young people, and even children are all affected by drugs, and it's getting worse everyday.
“We need to have a strong law to make sure that everyone who commits these types of crimes will receive the punishment they deserve. Everyday, police are responding to various types of criminal activities," he said, adding that from what they’ve observed, there are different types of people involved in the drug business, including dealers, pushers, sellers, and not to mention, that one person who is the leader of the operation.
Le'i said these are the people, who are spreading the drug problem around the island, and it affects our sons and daughters; they take advantage of the weak, whom need help, and if we don’t do something to stop them, we will continue to have a drug problem here.
Le’i informed the committee that the main reason why the Vice & Narcotics Tactical Unit was established two months ago is to tackle the drug problem in the territory. He said the duty of the new Unit is to make sure the whole community is safe, and because of that, they will be seen on the road everyday.
“We have a serious drug problem in American Samoa, and the police special team will assist the Commission that was appointed by the governor two months ago, to make sure our country, especially our children, are protected from drugs. Our duty is to stop these illegal drugs from entering our shores,” Le’i explained.
He added that since he became Commissioner nine months ago, cops have been working together — day and night — in an effort to track down those in the drug business, and during some traffic patrols, they have encountered people who are either drunk or high on drugs.
“A person who is high on drugs is more dangerous than a person who is drunk with alcohol," he said. "You can imagine how a husband acts at home towards his wife and kids if he’s high on drugs — and if you can figure that out — then you'll understand why I believe that those who deal with drugs are very dangerous people, and must be punished accordingly."
He said if we want to stop drugs from entering the island, "then we also need to consider a tough punishment for those convicted of violating local drug laws. We have to stop it now. We believe that prevention is better than cure."
Le'i told the committee, "I’ve seen people affected by drugs, and they are so dangerous.”
There were mixed reactions from faipule about the bill, but they all voiced their full support of the efforts in combatting the drug problem.
Rep. Toeaina Faufano Autele agreed that the problem of drugs in American Samoa is a fast-growing one, and said that in almost 200 years, the good news about salvation has been preached in every church on island, but it seems like people are doing the opposite of what the Bible teaches.
He said if this is the case, the death penalty is the only answer to the problem.
Saole faipule, Rep. Kitara Vaiau supported Toeaina’s statements, saying that in other countries around the world like China and Japan, they shoot people who are convicted of bringing drugs into their country.
Fagatogo faipule, Rep. Vailiuama Steve Leasiolagi believes that drugs is a serious problem in American Samoa right now, but said that serving a long prison term will never solve the problem. He said some people would never change, even after they are released from jail.
He inquired about rehabilitation for those with serious drug problems and said this will be the only way to help them change their lives.
To be fair with punishment, Vailiuama asked the committee to look at the difference between a person who is caught by police with a huge amount of drugs, and a person who is caught with only a marijuana joint.
Rep. Vaetasi Tuumolimoli Saena Moliga said illegal drugs are a long-standing problem, and the measure before the committee is the answer to that problem. He said 5 years in prison is not enough, because the person who commits the crime needs to stay in jail for a long period of time, and by the time he is released, he will have learned his lesson and become a contributing member of society.
He said he believes people will learn their lesson and repent if the punishment is tough.
Rep. Gafatasi Afalava said he is heartbroken when he looks at the many intelligent young people from his village who are affected by drugs, adding that their families did their best to raise them but unfortunately, things are getting worse and he is furious with those who are dealing drugs. His said his only solution to the problem is to raise the sentence for those who are convicted of violating local drug laws.
Rep. Samuel Ioka Meleisea said his district is one of the many areas seriously affected by the growing drug problem, which is causing young addicts to break into homes and businesses at night just to steal so they can buy drugs.
The House committee has agreed to further review the measure before making any decisions.