DOJ makes pitch for more funding, faces questions about criminal justice system

Kathy Jennings

DOVER — Budget-writing lawmakers heard from some of the key elements of the state’s criminal justice system Wednesday as hearings for the upcoming fiscal year’s spending plan continued.

Attorney General Kathy Jennings is seeking about $1.3 million more for the Department of Justice’s operating budget than recommended by Gov. John Carney last month. If granted by the Joint Finance Committee, the ask would bump the agency’s General Fund total from about $38.6 million this year to $41.1 million.

The new fiscal year begins July 1, meaning lawmakers still have more than four months to finalize a spending plan.

Ms. Jennings, a Democrat elected in 2018, requested JFC provide her agency with another 11 positions, as well as funding to raise pay for support staff. Those 11 positions include five attorneys, four paralegals, one social worker and one administrative specialist.

The $600,000 sum for salaries is Ms. Jennings’ top priority because of the frequency with which paralegals, social workers and administrators depart the agency due to low pay, she told the committee.

“We desperately need to improve the working life of the people who really are the fundamentals of our office,” she said.

Of the five requested deputy attorney general positions, one would go to the Criminal Division, two to the Fraud and Consumer Protection Division, one to the Family Division and one to the Office of Civil Rights and Public Trust.

The governor’s recommended budget contains 457 positions for the department. About three-quarters of those are covered by money from the state’s General Fund as opposed to special revenues collected by the agency itself.

The criminal attorney would handle sex crimes in Sussex County. As part of a new policy, deputy attorneys general prosecuting sex crimes meet with every victim, which can be taxing and time-consuming.

The deputy attorney general in the Family Division would be responsible for juvenile delinquency in Kent and Sussex, a subject currently handled by three attorneys. Ms. Jennings aims to move those cases through the courts quickly, with a focus on diversion and rehabilitation over incarceration.

The added position to the Office of Civil Rights and Public Trust would work on immigration assistance. The agency’s Office of Services for the Foreign Born, a little-known unit founded in 1935 that’s responsible for various issues relating to citizenship, temporary visas, travel documents and related issues, is being renamed Immigration Assistance.

One of the two new deputy attorneys general in the Fraud and Consumer Protection Division would be responsible for prosecuting scams targeting the elderly, while the other would become the first lawyer in the agency to handle data breaches. According to the Department of Justice, the Consumer Protection Unit brought in more money than was allocated for it last fiscal year, meaning its existence essentially made the state a profit of $1.5 million.

Ms. Jennings also sought to highlight the heavy workloads her employees are handling. The average deputy attorney general in the Special Victims Unit has 240 felony cases, far more than the 150 recommended by federal guidelines more than 50 years ago. Each deputy attorney general has, on average, more than 4,200 misdemeanor cases, the attorney general said.

As a result, some lawyers probably focus first on reducing the sheer number of cases before them, which can mean each situation receives less individualized attention, JFC co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat, said. He also told Ms. Jennings and the committee lawmakers “have a responsibility to try to do something about this caseload, but it’s going to be hard,” while Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, a fellow Democrat from Delaware’s largest city, questioned why some of the asks weren’t included in the governor’s recommendations to begin with.

But Rep. Earl Jaques, a Glasgow Democrat, appeared more skeptical. Although he referred to ensuring public safety as the top priority for lawmakers, Rep. Jaques wondered where the funding for Ms. Jennings’ requests will come from, saying he “failed to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Ms. Jennings faced questions about the agency’s mission as well: Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican, said the department has evolved into a “multifaceted octopus” with a far broader scope than simply protecting the public. The agency is too quick to accept plea bargains, especially in cases involving gun crimes, he said, reiterating a point some Republicans have made for years.

According to Sen. Lawson, because of the frequency with which deputy attorneys general take pleas or opt not to prosecute certain charges, those lawyers essentially serve as prosecutors, judges and juries.

The senator, who has been one of the leading critics of what some see as a criminal justice system that places too much emphasis on the offender at the expense of the victim, also posed an inquiry about why the Department of Justice is “hugging thugs.”

Ms. Jennings replied the victims are always the top priority for her employees while touting efforts the department is taking to reduce crime, in particular recidivism.

“I am laser beam focused in how we do better in our reentry efforts, how we do better in our sentencing efforts, how we do better in our rehabilitation efforts,” she said, describing an increase in funding for such programs and services as an investment that would pay off long term.

Sen. Lawson responded that cases are being made unnecessarily difficult, with the state often bringing a host of charges instead of sticking to the crux of the matter.

“Hey, he shot him so therefore he had a gun, so why are we getting out there and running amok?” he asked.

He also denounced the lessened focus on incarceration, saying it reduces peace of mind for many Delawareans.

“Where I live in western Kent County, I bet you the majority of people answer the door with a gun because they don’t feel safe,” he said.

Also speaking to JFC Wednesday were the Office of Defense Services and the judiciary. The courts are aiming to add three security officers, a Court of Common Pleas commissioner and three support staffers for that commissioner, as well as fund civil indigent services and raise pay for judicial information technology employees. The CCP commissioner and related personnel are the top priority for Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr., who assumed the post in November.

ODS, which is responsible for defending individuals who cannot afford counsel, is seeking an increase of about $380,000 to the governor’s recommendations, mostly to upgrade two social specialists and three paralegals from contractual or casual/seasonal to full-time and to hire an expungement coordinator and paralegal.

“There has to be parity in the criminal justice system,” Chief Defender Brendan O’Neill said. “It’s kind of like an ecosystem. If you do something to one part of the system, it’s going to have an impact on another part of the system.”