SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico's governor announced proposals Tuesday to fight crime, bolster the U.S. territory's justice system and strengthen public education in his last address to legislators before the fall elections.
Gov. Luis Fortuno, a Republican and leader of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said during his hourlong speech that the measures would help reduce a record number of killings on the Caribbean island.
"No one can be satisfied with the level of violence," he said. "We still have a lot to do."
Fortuno said he wants to amend Puerto Rico's constitution to give local judges the power to deny bail to those accused of first-degree murder, a power only U.S. federal judges currently have. A similar proposal was rejected by voters in a 1994 referendum, but he stressed that this time it would apply only to cases of premeditated murder.
The governor also said he plans to submit a separate bill that would give correction officers the authority to arrest and search convicted criminals who violate parole without obtaining a judge's consent.
Other legislation to be proposed would authorize the creation of special courtrooms to expedite murder cases and deny bail to those accused of killing public officials, he said.
The new proposals come shortly after Puerto Rico reported a record 1,117 homicides last year, surpassing the previous high of 995 in 1994.
Fortuno said he would unveil new programs to reduce the island's high school dropout rate, which hovers around 40 percent and which legislators have blamed for a rise in drug trafficking and other crime. He said he would also provide permanent funding to alternative education programs and require all public schools in Puerto Rico to teach English.
"Speaking and writing English perfectly should not be a privilege," he said. "To those who try to politicize this matter, I tell them now, do not mess with the future of our children."
Fortuno's party has long sought to see Puerto Rico become the 51st state, and voters in November will be presented with a two-part referendum to help decide the island's political status. The first part of the referendum will ask if voters want a change in status or prefer to remain a U.S. commonwealth. The second part will ask voters to choose from three options: statehood, independence or sovereign free association.
"This debate has divided the Puerto Rican family and has been an obstacle for us," Fortuno said. "The moment (to decide) is now."
Fortuno, who is running for a second term, noted that Puerto Rico is starting to see a small increase in economic growth despite an unemployment rate higher than any U.S. state — nearly 15 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Alejandro Garcia Padilla, a member of the opposition Popular Democratic Party who is running against Fortuno in November, criticized him for the elimination of 30,000 public sector jobs.
"There is no message from the governor that changes the reality that the people live and suffer," Garcia said.