Democrats seek leniency for juveniles offenders

DOVER — House Democrats this week introduced a series of bills to guarantee equal protection and alter the criminal justice system to make it less punitive for juveniles.

House Bill 2, a proposal with bipartisan support, would amend the Delaware Constitution by adding a line stating, “No person shall be denied equal rights under the law.” The measure is similar to an unsuccessful 2016 bill, although that one did not have any Republican co-sponsors.

“Discrimination in our day and age is blatantly unacceptable, but it sadly is a reality for many people. Sexual harassment, pay inequity and gender-based violence are still pervasive in our society,” main sponsor House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said in a statement. “In fact, Delaware women working full-time, on average, still only earn 89 cents to every dollar their male counterparts earn.

“Delaware has prided itself on being welcoming and inclusive for all residents, and House Bill 2 just affirms those values. Equality for men and women is an essential human right and we should do what we can policy-wise to make sure that Delaware residents are afforded the protections they deserve.”

The Delaware Legislature ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed change to the U.S. Constitution, in 1972, making the state one of the first to approve it. However, the measure fell several states short of passage.

House Bill 9 would give judges more discretion to try teenagers not as adults but as juveniles for select offenses. State law currently requires individuals 16 or older to be tried as adults in cases involving rioting, use of explosive devices, possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony and wearing body armor during the commission of a felony. Additionally, anyone at least 15 years of age charged with possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony must be tried as an adult.

The bill would allow judges to try individuals facing such charges as juveniles, sending them to the Family Court rather than the Superior Court.

“In certain cases, it can be more beneficial — for the judicial system and the child — if a juvenile is tried as a juvenile,” main sponsor Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, said in a statement. “We may be able to intervene in that child’s life and divert them from going through the revolving door of recidivism. Currently those charges cannot be transferred, but with this discretion judges will be able to make more informed, nuanced decisions.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said the agency does not oppose the bill as a whole but “would not support the provisions that would change the current law with respect to 16 and 17 year olds who use firearms or weapons in the course of committing a felony.”

House Bill 7 would raise the age for when individuals charged with felonies or Class A misdemeanors can have their information, including mugshot and address, released to the public.

Currently, the media can request information for any 13 years or older facing charges as a juvenile. The bill would raise it to 16 and would prevent information from being publicly disseminated in the case of an acquittal.

“A criminal charge in and of itself has a long-term impact on a child, impacting his or her social and academic performance. That impact can be debilitating — and that is without even taking into account that the individual’s name and photo exist on the web and are at the whim of negative social media posts,” main sponsor Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said in a statement.

“It almost defeats the purpose of an expungement. This legislation takes into account those consequences and will make it so youth will have a better shot to rebuild their lives, find jobs and pursue educational opportunities.”

Neither bill has Republican co-sponsors.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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