State attorney general touts reforms for justice system

WILMINGTON — Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings said Monday she has outlined reforms aimed at providing a more “fair and equal” criminal justice system for the state.

Citing incarceration and recidivism rates that outstrip the national average, an unprecedented opioid epidemic, and what she called a groundswell of public support for reform, a memo sent to DOJ prosecutors and staff outlined guidelines that emphasize judicial discretion, increase diversion for lower-level offenses, reduce collateral consequences associated with criminal records, and recommend an overall shift in focus toward more violent crime.

The attorney general said she will work with legislators, community advocates and law enforcement on a number of changes to the state criminal code this year that will also lead to better outcomes than current laws.

“We don’t have to choose between public safety and progress; we can and must choose both,” she said. “These policies reaffirm the Department of Justice’s longstanding mission to protect the rights of all Delawareans: victims, the public, and the accused. Our decisions substantially impact peoples’ lives and livelihoods, their families, and the community’s faith in the system.

“We are continuing to work on other initiatives outside of our office, but our internal reforms are an important step forward in a long journey toward the model of justice that the people of this state expect of us, and that we expect of ourselves.”

According to the AG’s office, Delaware has made significant progress reducing its prison population and pretrial detainee population (down 11 percent and 33 percent, respectively, from 2014 to 2018). However, the AG said, room for improvement still remains: according to the Sentencing Project, Delaware’s incarceration rate in 2016 ranked 16th among all states and was among the highest in the region.

The state also has a high rate of recidivism: figures from the Criminal Justice Council show a three-year re-arrest rate of 72.8 percent.

Gov. John Carney, who recently announced an initiative to improve re-entry procedures in Delaware, praised the announcement.

“We have a responsibility to make sure Delaware’s criminal justice system is fair to all Delawareans,” he said. “We’ve been focused on helping all offenders in Delaware successfully re-enter their communities once they have served their time.

“These policy changes at the Department of Justice represent another real step forward, by ensuring that our resources are focused on prosecuting crimes that represent the greatest threat to our communities. I want to thank Attorney General Kathy Jennings for her leadership on this issue, and for all of her efforts to make Delaware’s criminal justice system more fair for all Delawareans.”

Main points detailed

Key provisions of the memo include:

• Support for pretrial practices that deemphasize cash bail for routine misdemeanors

• Guidance to avoid unjust “stacking” of minimum mandatory sentences and to reduce requests for the Courts to declare a defendant a habitual offender in order to increase sentences, especially with non-violent crimes

• Policies that aim to address the opioid epidemic by relying on mental health and drug treatment needs before prison sentences

• Emphasis on diversion and alternatives to prosecution for several categories of low-level offenses, including simple possession of marijuana and prostitution

• Consideration of alternatives to prison that limit collateral consequences while accounting for public safety, such as house arrest

• Emphasis on judicial discretion in sentencing, shorter sentencing recommendations, probation in lieu of some prison sentences, and recommending judges limit probation to one year in most scenarios

• Opposition to the issuance of warrants and driving license revocation for failure to pay fines and fees when the accused is without the ability to pay

• Consideration of collateral consequences for undocumented victims and witnesses

• Juvenile justice provisions that encourage extended Family Court jurisdiction and discourage trying children as adults except when necessary

• Support for expungements for crimes that are now legal, and for nonviolent charges in which a nolle prosequi (a decision not to pursue charges) has been entered on the basis of insufficient evidence

• Support for pardons for isolated, non-violent crimes when the applicant has demonstrated sufficient rehabilitation

All of the AG’s internal changes are presumptive guidelines; prosecutors will be able to seek exceptions to policies when individual cases’ facts and circumstances warrant the deviation.

Delaware Center for Justice Policy Director Kate Parker said the announcement made important progress on fairness in the criminal justice system.

“The Delaware Center for Justice applauds Attorney General Jennings, State Prosecutor Roop and their leadership team for promulgating guidelines that we believe will transform the quality of justice for Delawareans involved with the criminal legal system,” she said.

“These guidelines push us towards a safer, fairer, more effective legal system one where the race and gender of the defendant or victim or the amount of money they have in their pockets will no longer predict court outcomes.”

New Castle County Chief of Police Col. Vaughn Bond praised the Attorney General’s attention to mental health and addiction issues in particular.

“I look forward to working with the Attorney General to not only focus on criminal activity, but also on treating individuals who are suffering from addiction and mental illness, many of whom comprise a significant portion of our incarcerated population,” said Col. Bond.

In a prepared statement Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware, said, in part.

“For too many years Delaware’s criminal prosecution system has focused on tough charging practices and long prison terms.

“Today, Attorney General Kathleen Jennings took an important step toward shifting that focus to make the system fairer and more just.

“Her directives to the deputies working in the Department of Justice recognize that true justice requires charges to match the seriousness of each individual offense, that diversion and treatment can be more effective public safety tools than incarceration and that the courts should have a robust role in determining appropriate sentences.

“If implemented as written, these new guidelines should lead to changes in charging, sentencing, bail and expungement. As a result, more Delawareans should be diverted from prison and overall time served should be reduced.

“In turn, this will help reduce prison overcrowding, make more resources available for rehabilitative services for those already in prison, and ultimately lead to a stronger and fairer community. …”

Reach the Delaware State News newsroom at newsroom@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment