Delaware Senate approves changes to habitual-offender law


DOVER — After a bitter debate, the Delaware Senate passed a bill Thursday revising the state’s three strikes law.

By a 14-6 vote, the chamber elected to end mandatory life sentences, grant judges more leeway in sentencing and allow current habitual offenders a chance to petition the court for a change in their punishment.

The vote followed an hour and 15 minutes of discussion that grew loud and emotional at times, with senators attempting to talk over one another and engaging in a few acrimonious verbal altercations.

Main sponsor Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, blasted Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, who retorted and later called her “queen of the cheap shot.”

Colin Bonini

Colin Bonini

He approached reporters afterward to continue his criticism from the floor and insisted that “this vote was absolutely about releasing dangerous criminals.”

Supporters argued the legislation will create fairer sentences, but opponents countered it will decrease public safety.

Gov. Jack Markell backs the bill and said through a spokesman, “We don’t need to sentence all of those offenders to life in prison when many will age out of crime. We need to give our judges discretion to sentence offenders on a case-by-case basis so that we can focus our limited resources on keeping dangerous offenders off the streets.”

Thursday, Sens. Bonini; Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna; Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View; David Lawson, R-Marydel; Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown; and Bryant Richardson, R-Laurel, voted against it, with Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, abstaining.

The bill now goes to the House, where it will first be heard in committee.

Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson

Introduced in July and replaced with a substitute in January after negotiations with the courts, state prosecutors and other agencies, the measure is an effort to change policies that have not worked, Sen. Peterson, the main sponsor, said.

“Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” she said. “There’s no better example of that than the criminal justice policies of the past 30 years. The get tough on crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s have done nothing to reduce crime and in fact have led to higher recidivism rates.”

Currently, a person convicted for three separate felonies and then a fourth and violent felony can be declared a habitual offender, which mandates a minimum sentence not shorter than the maximum penalty for that offense.

The bill would change the required minimum to half the maximum. In cases where the top allowable sentence is life in prison, the minimum would be 30 years.

Sen. Peterson’s proposal would also replace a provision requiring a life sentence for anyone who commits two felonies and then a third violent felony from a select list that includes home invasion, rape and several drug crimes.

Instead, the bill would create a mandatory minimum of the maximum penalty for someone convicted of three violent felonies. A criminal convicted on two separate occasions for violent felonies who then commits another violent felony would face no less than the maximum punishment for the third crime.

Drug crimes would no longer be considered violent felonies.

The bill would not prohibit harsher sentences being handed down by a judge.

“There have been many instances where we have come before this august body and argued that there should be minimum mandatories, they do serve a salutary purpose, but what this attorney general has seen, and you are correct, it is the first time in the 40-some years that the Delaware habitual offender statute has been on the books, that there can be injustice in a one-size-fits-all under certain circumstances,” state prosecutor Kathleen Jennings said in response to a question from Sen. Bonini.

The bill would allow for “individualized” sentences, she told the Senate.

There are 519 habitual offenders in Delaware jails, with 79 serving life in prison.

Sen. Bonini was the harshest critic of the bill Thursday, arguing it would let violent criminals out onto the streets.

“We are talking about habitual, by definition in the title, offenders. … Third-time felons. Fourth-time felons,” he said, imploring colleagues to vote against the proposal. “These are people, somebody said it, a very good point, with long criminal careers. And you know what you do if you have a criminal career and you get out of prison? You go and commit crime.”

Sen. Peterson noted the United States leads the world in number of people incarcerated, with almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population.

During the debate, she got into spats with both Sen. Bonini and Sen. Lawson, at one point referencing Republican president candidate Donald Trump and his stated plan to utilize waterboarding and torture.

“Reducing the number of folks on prison is not a legitimate public policy goal,” Sen Bonini said. “The legitimate public policy goal is reducing crime and making our constituents safer.”

“It’s exactly that tough on crime attitude that got us where we are today,” Sen. Peterson retorted.

Sen. Bonini said afterward he expected more than six senators to vote no but some lawmakers were swayed by arguments from Ms. Jennings.

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