Delaware Dems file juvenile justice reform bills

DOVER — Democratic lawmakers on Friday filed two criminal justice reform bills targeted at minors, with more expected before the General Assembly returns Jan. 12.

The measures introduced Friday were previously filed in 2019 as part of a 19-bill package of criminal justice reform legislation. Eleven of those bills became law.

“Teenagers and young people, even those who commit crimes, should not be forced into a criminal justice system that is designed for adults,” Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, a Wilmington Democrat, said in a statement. “When we treat minors like adults in the justice system, the outcomes are not only bad for them, they’re worse for society at large.

“This doesn’t mean that minors shouldn’t face consequences for their actions, but we have to continue working to make the justice system fair and geared at rehabilitation and ensuring that a mistake when someone is young doesn’t lead to a lifetime of negative consequences.”

House Bill 26 would end youth incarcerations in adult jails, requiring anyone under 18 years of age who is adjudicated in the Superior Court to be in the custody of the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families initially. Upon turning 18, the individual would be sent to the Department of Correction.

Currently, state law allows 16- and 17-year-old boys to be jailed in the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution under certain circumstances. Though they are required to be separated from the adult population, this essentially means they are kept in solitary confinement, per the House Democratic caucus.

“Our society treats adults and juveniles differently because they are fundamentally different,” said Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat and the Senate prime sponsor of the measure, in a statement. “We have different rules for how children and teens should be interrogated, how they are prosecuted and how they are sentenced.

“The fact that some of them are still being incarcerated in a prison system designed for adults is both cruel and nonsensical. Instead of isolating them in our maximum-security prisons, we need to be doing more to help these young people turn their lives around.”

House Bill 27 would mandate the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families has exclusive jurisdiction over all aspects of a young person’s custody and care when he or she is found responsible for a Family Court offense.

The legislation would give individuals the greatest chance to receive specialized supervision and support, House Democrats said.

Set to be filed in the coming weeks are bills to raise the age at which a juvenile’s information, such as their name and mugshot, may be released by the state and to establish a minimum age for criminal prosecution.

“Our rehabilitation efforts have the greatest chance of success the earlier we can reach those caught up in our criminal justice system,” said Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, a Wilmington Democrat and the Senate prime sponsor of House Bill 27, in a statement.

“Our whole society benefits when we are able to provide intervention and support services to children and young people before a life of crime becomes all they know. Engaging vulnerable people takes specialized training and this legislation will help make sure we are focusing our resources on turning young lives around.”