Push to revamp Delaware criminal code opposed by police, prosecutors

DOVER — The courts and Department of Justice are butting heads over an initiative that would rewrite the state’s criminal code, illustrating a startling discrepancy in the views of the chief justice and the attorney general.

Language included in the budget in 2014 created a committee made up of members of the judicial, legislative and executive branches to review the state’s criminal statutes and propose changes, with an eye toward simplifying provisions, eliminating redundant language and potentially lessening some charges.

Chief Justice Leo Strine has signed on to large-scale criminal law reform, but Attorney General Matt Denn and law enforcement are staunchly opposed, raising questions about the possibility of such an enterprise.

Leo Strine by .

Leo Strine

Wednesday, a select group of lawmakers received an overview on the initiative, and afterward Mr. Denn issued criticisms that seemed to be aimed at the courts.

The Joint Finance Committee heard testimony from University of Pennsylvania professor Paul Robinson, an expert in criminal law, as he made his pitch for a large-scale overhaul.

Clarifying and cutting down the code makes it easier for both civilians and police to understand it, Mr. Robinson said, arguing such a process would also lead to greater cooperation from the public.

“Frankly the wasted costs in the justice system are huge,” JFC co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, agreed, even though she raised some other questions about the initiative. “No one’s looking to let out murderers and rapists.”

But Mr. Denn and several police organizations have expressed concerns a major revamp would have a host of negative impacts, such as harming public safety and erasing decades of case law.

“The code as it’s written now has existed for 40 years, all of the terms have been interpreted by the courts, prosecutors and law enforcement officers know what they mean, and when you eliminate all of them, create brand-new ones and hit the reset button, you create a tremendous amount of uncertainty that we think is a serious public safety issue,” Mr. Denn said after the meeting.

Attorney General Matt Denn speaks at a law enforcement memorial service on Legislative Mall in Dover on Wednesday morning. (Special to The Delaware State News/Doug Curran)

Matt Denn

He said he asked JFC for a chance to testify but was denied.

Mr. Denn, who has pushed for reducing some minimum mandatory sentences, increasing punishment for gun offenses and providing greater equity in the system, said he would be willing to look at small changes but believes rewriting the body of the code would create far more problems than it would solve.

Gov. Jack Markell, who was not involved in the hearing, offered a centrist viewpoint on the matter.

“It may be the kind of thing that makes sense, but if it is, it is also the kind of thing where there are a lot of stakeholders who are going to add a lot of value to add to the conversation and I think part of the responsibility here is to get all those stakeholders into the room to listen to them, to really understand where they’re coming from, and that is a long and very involved process,” he said.

Mr. Robinson speculated during the committee meeting the Department of Justice’s opposition may stem from the change eliminating the power of the agency to “overcharge” people, which gives prosecutors more power to get a plea bargain.

“I’m interested in doing justice,” he said. “If you care about justice, you care about people getting what they get, no more, no less.”

Mr. Denn categorically rejected his comments on redundant charges, bristling at the suggestion prosecutors do not act “ethically and responsibly.”

With Chief Justice Strine holding one point of view and Mr. Denn taking another, pressure could continue to mount — from both sides.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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