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Work conditions at the territory’s Department of Justice haven’t been the same since Hurricane Maria, to the detriment of morale and legal proceedings.
WASHINGTON — Reestablishing normal work conditions remains a primary concern for Puerto Rico's Department of Justice more than 160 days after Hurricane Maria left the island’s government agencies and the communities they serve without basic necessities.
Some of the department's lawyers were unable to communicate with or make it into work, while others were off providing volunteer aid to children, people with disabilities and seniors, Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez-Garced told the National Association of Attorneys General on Monday at their winter meeting in the nation's capital.
The “most catastrophic atmospheric event in the U.S.” left the territory looking and feeling like “another dimension,” and not even the Justice Department headquarters was spared, the secretary said.
“The fight against crime is a very difficult task,” Vazquez-Garced said. “Can you imagine it without a place to quarter all your lawyers and prosecutors?”
Post-Maria, Puerto Rico saw one of its deadliest months in recent years in January with 78 homicides reported.
Employees lacked access to case files, phone service, internet, or even computers following the hurricane, with work conditions having a noticeable negative effect on morale, the secretary said. The criminal justice information system was inaccessible for several weeks, delaying the agency’s ability to defend ongoing cases.
While the situation has improved and about 600 volunteers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FBI and Red Cross are now assisting Puerto Rico’s government, electricity, electronics and communications must still be restored and case files digitized.
The Justice Department is eyeing a replacement office that will cost $19 million—“money our local government does not have,” Vazquez-Garced said.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, NAAG president, said the organization has put together a working group of four of its members to serve as a point of contact for Puerto Rico.
A team will be on the ground in a few weeks, and NAAG’s executive committee and Mission Foundation are discussing short-term aid from expertise to things as “simple as keeping folks motivated,” Schmidt said.
Vazquez-Garced asked for help to “maintain law and order” in the territory.
“We need your assistance,” Vazquez-Garced said. “We could use funding, technical support or motivational training.”
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.