House committee OKs bill to expand judicial discretion in sentencing

DOVER — A House panel on Wednesday approved legislation that would give judges greater discretion by allowing them to impose concurrent sentences in more cases.

The bill, which the House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly agreed to release to the full chamber, is part of a package of more than a dozen criminal justice bills announced in March.

Current state law lists about 20 offenses, such as manslaughter, rape and home invasion, where sentences must be handed down consecutively.

This stacking means some offenders who would otherwise be given concurrent sentences, which are served at the same time as opposed to one after the other, end up spending more time behind bars.

Many of those convicts would be better served by shorter sentences, speakers in the House Judiciary Committee claimed.

The circumstances of each offense are different, and someone who has no previous criminal history shouldn’t necessarily be given the same sentence as someone who committed the same crime but has a lengthy record, supporters claimed.

“Individual cases need to be treated individually, (and) one-size-fits-all is a failed system. We need prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges to treat the individual cases differently when it calls for it,” said Attorney General Kathy Jennings, a Democrat.

The bill does not eliminate successive sentences and continues the mandate that they be handed down in some situations. Consecutive sentences would still be required for possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent felony if the firearm was used or displayed, for assault in a detention facility and for rape, murder, manslaughter and sexual abuse of a child by a person in a position of trust or authority when there are multiple victims.

Judges generally want the ability to give defendants personalized sentences, Ms. Jennings told the committee.

Other members praised the bench, describing Delaware judges as among the best in the country.

“We put them on from both sides of the aisle for their judgment,” former Delaware Attorney General and U.S. Attorney Charles Oberly emphasized.

In the Senate Banking, Business & Insurance Committee, members heard two bills that deal with alcohol but cover very different issues. One, part of the criminal justice package, would make underage possession and consumption of alcohol a civil offense and bar any such violations from appearing on a person’s criminal record.

“Having a criminal record is something that can follow a person around potentially for life,” American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware attorney Karen Lantz told the committee.

Speaking on behalf of Newark, Rick Armitage said members of City Council do have some concerns about the bill because of the frequency of underage drinking in the city, which is home to the University of Delaware.

The other alcohol-related measure would make Delaware the 47th state that allows the direct shipment of wine.

The legislation, which would only apply to wine producers with a special shipping license, would limit recipients to wines not sold in the state.

“Delaware wine consumers should have the same right as consumers of anything and everything that gets shipped to our homes,” Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark, said.

The measure is similar to one introduced in prior legislative sessions.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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