Democratic attorney general candidates push for reform

DOVER — Attorney general candidate Chris Johnson repeatedly went after fellow candidate Kathy Jennings at a forum for the four Democratic hopefuls Wednesday, calling her a hypocrite and a bad boss.

Chris Johnson

Held at Delaware State University by DSU, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware and the Coalition for Smart Justice Delaware, the event offered attendees another chance to hear from the four Delawareans seeking the party’s nomination next week.

All four candidates advocated for criminal justice reform, making bold promises to work to decrease the prison population, listen to the community and build trust between law enforcement and regular citizens.

“We’re hoping that we can elect an attorney general that will be a partner,” Delaware ACLU Executive Director Kathleen MacRae said.

In addition to Mr. Johnson and Ms. Jennings, Tim Mullaney and LaKresha Roberts are aiming to succeed Democrat Matt Denn, who is not seeking a second term as AG. The field is extremely diverse: Either Mr. Johnson or Ms. Roberts would be the first African-American to serve as Delaware’s top law enforcement officer, and Ms. Roberts or Ms. Jennings would be just the second woman to be elected to the office.

The winner of Sept. 6’s primary will face Republican Bernard Pepukayi in November.

Though Wednesday’s event was billed as a forum, not a debate, Mr. Johnson, the former deputy legal counsel for Gov. John Carney, was very critical of Ms. Jennings. He never mentioned her by name, but it was clear he was referring to the Department of Justice’s former chief deputy attorney general and state prosecutor.

“I’m going to say one thing before, and I probably shouldn’t say it, but I will,” he told the audience.

Kathy Jennings

“There’s one person up here, who’s directly to my left, that countless times throughout the campaign many people have come to me and talked about the office culture under them, and voters must understand that under one person’s leadership there will be a significant change in the office and not in a positive way. And so not only are people within the office scared but people who have worked with that person don’t like their management style.”

As one of the highest-ranking members of the agency, Ms. Jennings could have worked to effect significant reforms but failed to do so, he said.

Although she rarely responded directly, Ms. Jennings defended her record throughout the night, pointing to efforts she said she undertook to create a fairer criminal justice system.

She said she has opposed mandatory minimums for drug crimes, pushed for the elimination of habitual offender laws and served on a crime commission focused on solving murders.

“I have spent my career fighting the status quo,” said Ms. Jennings, who is considered by many to be the favorite in Sept. 6’s primary.

Mr. Johnson argued he had “not perpetuated the system unlike some people up here.”

The other two candidates have also worked for the Delaware Department of Justice. Mr. Mullaney served as director of the Fraud and Consumer Protection Division and then as chief of staff to then Attorney General Beau Biden, while Ms. Roberts was director of the Family Division and most recently chief deputy attorney general.

Mr. Mullaney has taken a more conservative approach on some issues: Unlike the other three candidates, he said he supports the death penalty and mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes.

“For those drug offenses where people are lacing heroin with fentanyl and causing the deaths in this community, they should be treated harshly. In this state, we’ve got an epidemic,” he said.

A former Dover police officer and U.S. marshal, Mr. Mullaney has been endorsed by the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police and Delaware State Troopers Association.

All four candidates agreed the February 2017 inmate uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left one correctional dead stemmed at least partially from poor treatment of prisoners.

LaKresha Roberts

“You just hear horrendous accounts of the conditions that people are forced to live in and the fact that there’s being provided little to no services,” Ms. Roberts, who has spent most of her career focusing on families and children, said.

“Rehabilitation is just not happening in prison and I’m of the belief that led us to where we are or where we were when that incident occurred. As far as appropriate measures, I don’t think that there have been appropriate measures to remedy that situation.

“All we’re reading in the paper is about the push for more correctional officers in prison, as if that’s going to make it safer. All right, we’re putting more law enforcement in prison, but when are we going to focus on meeting inmates’ needs? When are we going to put more mental health professionals in there? When are we going to get them rehabilitative programs?

“We’re still not focusing on spending money wisely and investing in making sure that returning citizens can be successful when they come back to the community.”

Each candidate agreed the state must establish more programs both to catch at-risk youth early and to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society.

According to the Statistical Analysis Center, about 70 percent of inmates released in 2008, 2009 and 2010 were convicted of another serious offense within three years.

While different sources use different methods to track incarceration rate, they are all in agreement that the United States’ rate is among the highest in the world, and several point to Delaware’s as being worse than the national average.

Greater involvement with the community is necessary to help drive that down and to foster trust between authorities and the public, candidates agreed.

Tim Mullaney

“Sometimes we as politicians talk to people and tell them what we think they need without taking the time to listen to them,” Mr. Mullaney said.

“One of the important things I’ve stressed throughout my campaign is patience because we can’t hunker down in our own silos within the attorney general’s office, law enforcement, the courts, nonprofits, whatever and expect to solve problems. We have to be able to be open and talk to each other, talk to the community, find out what’s working, what’s not working.”

Mr. Johnson felt his opponents were not going far enough, arguing that unless societal reform is undertaken, the root causes — income and racial inequality, to name two — and thus the resulting issues will remain.

Each of the four agreed giving judges greater discretion would lead to fairer sentences and spoke of the importance of getting the deputy attorneys general and DOJ division heads to buy into their visions.

Mr. Johnson noted both Ms. Jennings and Ms. Roberts have changed their position on capital punishment over the course of the campaign. While Delaware has not had a death penalty statute since the state Supreme Court struck it down two years ago, lawmakers attempted to put it back in place in the 149th General Assembly and will surely try again next year.

Ms. Jennings and Ms. Roberts said in January if the death penalty is re-established they would seek to use it in select cases, a stance each has since disavowed.

“I have come to realize that the death penalty has not made Delaware safer, it has not deterred crime and it is the taking of a human life,” Ms. Jennings said.

She prosecuted Delaware’s only serial killer, Steven Pennell, who was convicted in 1989 of murdering two women and was executed three years later.

As of Aug. 7, Ms. Jennings had raised nearly $411,000, more than three times what her opponents combined have collected. The newest campaign finance reports are due today.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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