PHILIPSBURG–Jeroen Steenbrink has been St. Maarten’s Chief Prosecutor since January 1. His year-long experience with the Prosecutor’s Office in the Netherlands will undoubtedly come in handy in crimefighting in St. Maarten.
Prior to coming to St. Maarten in November 2017, Steenbrink was not just a Prosecutor in the Netherlands, he also headed the Amsterdam Integrity Bureau for three years
Having been on the island since late last year, Steenbrink (58) said he is “really impressed” by the crime rate on the island, compared with its relatively small number of residents.
“St. Maarten is a small country with big problems and with big challenges, if you want to formulate it positively, even more so after Hurricane Irma. It has an international airport, a seaport with six to eight visiting cruise ships per day in its heydays, many visiting tourists, large flows of monies, very open connections and trade, enormous economic activities in casinos, in Front Street stores and in big hotels.
“That’s impressive for such a small area. In that light I dare say that all experience I gathered in the past years will be useful.”
Steenbrink said the cash-strapped Government and often heavily under-staffed Government entities are being confronted with very complicated issues, among which are, for example, border control and crisis management.
“Prosecutors are being confronted with very complex cases. When I had just arrived on the island one of the Prosecutors told me he was preparing a case of 29 armed robberies, and that is no exception, and eight to 10 murders a year, which is very impressive considering the small scale of the population.”
Steenbrink also said the large number of weapons on the island is another point of concern.
“Several reports have been written about this country, and I don’t have to repeat them here, but also the integrity in Government is an issue. I want to stress here that it is very important that residents have faith in the impartial administration of justice where it concerns domestic violence, youth problems, and integrity in government as well.”
It was his dream to become a Prosecutor from an early age. At the age of 30 he had realised this goal when he became a Prosecutor in Amsterdam. Eleven years later it was time for a change.
“I could have bought a motorcycle or started doing something else. I chose for the last option and became the Head of the Integrity Bureau in Amsterdam,” said Steenbrink.
Amsterdam had a lot of problems with integrity issues at the time and the Bureau provided advice to the municipality on this matter while there were not many entities in the Netherlands dealing with integrity issues. The foundation for the Integrity Bureau was laid after three years and Steenbrink returned to the Prosecutor’s Office because he felt at home there.
Five years later it was time for another move and he became Chief Prosecutor in Alkmaar. After two years, when the number of court districts in the Netherlands was reduced from 20 to 10, Steenbrink became Acting Chief Prosecutor of the Noord-Holland district, leading 60 Prosecutors and 300 employees in total for almost eight years. Also, for eight years, he was the National Prosecutor for victim support.
Within the Dutch Prosecutor’s Office, he was involved with many complicated cases, such as subversive activities at the North Sea port of IJmuiden and elsewhere in Noord-Holland province.
“The mayor said: ‘If you want to shoot a crime sequel they always use the Port of IJmuiden as background. I want to get rid of that image.’ It was a desolate place where nobody came and where nobody knew what was going on behind the scenes. Everybody knew that things were happening there, but it was difficult to lay your finger on it. We wanted to ensure that people want to work and live there again by giving the area a push and to make sure that government is in charge in an area where people like to come again.”
Steenbrink also was a member of the Supervisory Committee involved with the construction of the Zaanstad prison, with 1,000 inmates the largest detention facility in the Netherlands. That prison carried the slogan: “Start Inside, to remain Outside,” which Steenbrink also wants to introduce in St. Maarten.
“Being in prison is a temporary holdup in your life. People always return to society, unless you’re imprisoned for life. Therefore, resocialisation is very important. You must start inside the prison confines to ensure that ex-convicts stay outside. You must not consider prison a place where you get rid of people for a while in cold punishment. It is much more important to make use of this time to teach these people a trade and give them more self-esteem. A humane prison is crucial. That goes for every country, and for St. Maarten.”
Steenbrink is an advocate of “meaningful interventions” in dealing with persons who commit crimes.
“In consultation with the parole board, victim support, the police, it is up the Prosecutor to decide which punishment adds value, and that does not automatically mean the most severe punishment, as many people think. A suitable punishment is much more important. This could, for instance, mean that payment of damages into a crime fund is awarded, or that you order a person to offer his apologies to the one he’s beaten up. Or that mediation is considered much more suitable than taking someone to Court.
“People often have high expectations of criminal law enforcement. They think the law is going to solve their problems. I file a complaint, something has happened to me and the problem is solved. But the problem is not solved. We make sure that justice is being done. That’s what the Prosecutor’s Office is standing for.”
Retribution is an important element in sentencing, but besides that the Prosecutor’s Office also wants to prevent reoffending. “When neighbours fight and someone gets hit, you may punish hard, but that only hardens the relationship. It is much better to ensure that these neighbours keep in touch with each other and make arrangements about how to deal with each other.”
However, this does not mean that persons who commit major crimes such as premeditated murder will be let off easily, Steenbrink said. “The trick is to punish as lightly as possible. Punishing someone is an understandable but rather primitive opinion. I understand it, but there is more than mere retribution.”
Steenbrink said the prison system on the island is matter for concern, even more so after Hurricane Irma. In putting it mildly, he said the conditions at the Pointe Blanche prison are “far from ideal. I have been at the Pointe Blanche prison and that is scary when you come from the Netherlands.”
Many reports have been written about the prison, a large section of which can no longer be used after the hurricanes. Many long-term prisoners have been relocated to prisons in Curaçao and in the Netherlands. The detention capacity in Pointe Blanche is insufficient, which means the Prosecutor’s Office needs to be creative in punishing criminals. “This means preventive custody and detention only when necessary,” Steenbrink said.
St. Maarten is lacking in assistance and measures to operate adequately in crime prevention and after a crime has been committed. That is not only a point of great concern for the Prosecutor’s Office but for society at large, said Steenbrink.
Youth crime is a problem, but Miss Lalie Youth Care and Rehabilitation Centre was also severely damaged by the hurricanes and cannot be used to date. Another point of concern is persons with a psychiatric background who commit crimes. There are hardly any facilities for these people.
Solutions will not come easily, according to the Chief Prosecutor. “St. Maarten is a young country and many institutions are simply not there yet, and then Hurricane Irma came along, which in only six hours’ time caused much destruction and material damage, as well as to the wellbeing of people.”
While construction workers can be heard hammering on the roof of the Prosecutor’s Office on Emmaplein, Steenbrink said it is one of the Prosecutor’s Office’s spearheads to be prepared for the start of the 2018 hurricane season.
“After Irma you saw two things: the resilience of the people on this island, but you also saw that immediately after the hurricane and even during the ‘eye’ the worst in a small number of people emerged in large-scale plunder, robberies and violence. Then you see how important it is that there is rule of law here and that residents may count on the fact that persons who commit crimes like these are put to justice.”
Steenbrink said crimes like these are not tolerated. Led by his predecessor Ton Maan, the Prosecutor’s Office had done a “fantastic” job in detecting and prosecuting these so called “Irma” cases, he said.
In preparing for the upcoming season residents of St. Maarten also need to be able to count on the Prosecutor’s Office. To this effect internal protocols and arrangements with judicial partners will be fine-tuned, Steenbrink said. “In hard times you need to be able to count on Government to be there for you.”
Being an expert on integrity, Steenbrink said that in setting up an Integrity Chamber it is important to decide about cooperation and when investigations by the Chamber will be handed over to the Prosecutor’s Office in case of severe breaches of integrity. “You have to make good agreements about that.”
First and foremost, St. Maarten’s Government needs to take responsibility for integrity within its own organisation, said Steenbrink. “Criminal justice is not a solution for everything, far from it. You do that by taking all kinds of basic preventive measures through good leadership, correct administrative procedures, and by reducing the use of cash money.”
In severe cases Government needs to involve the police, the National Detectives and the Prosecutor’s Office to discuss the next steps to be taken, Steenbrink said.
Member of Parliament Frans Richardson was arrested on February 14 on suspicion of accepting bribes, tax fraud and of participation in a criminal organisation aimed at recruiting votes for himself.
In a press statement after Richardson’s release from preventive custody, his attorney said her client’s detention seemed to be aimed at undermining his campaign and intended to influence the outcome of the February 26 snap election.
“The Prosecutor’s Office is impartial,” Steenbrink stressed when confronted with this statement. “We do our work without regard to persons. We have our own agenda, and simply said, ‘When our investigations are done we take the next steps.’
“We cannot allow ourselves to be influenced by circumstances such as whether there are elections or not. Lady Justice is not absentminded. We are just doing our job. We are not blind. We keep connected with society and we’re keeping our eyes and ears open, but in cases like these timing is never perfect.”
Steenbrink is a staunch advocate of victim support. At this moment, St. Maarten does not have a Victim Support Office.
“My slogan is that the Prosecutor’s Office focusses on the perpetrator, but also wants to stand for the victim. It is very important that you show that you also care for victims; they need information, a correct approach and assistance with filing for damages. I hope a Victim Support Office will contribute to the public trust in the Prosecutor’s Office and in the administration of justice,” Steenbrink said.
He who also announced the launch of the Asset Recovery Team, which will become operational again.