ACLU of Delaware outlines needed prison changes

WILMINGTON — Calling for an overhaul of the state’s probation system, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware released a 52-page report today on its current impact and what changes could significantly reduce its prison population and save millions of dollars.

Delaware has the eighth highest rate of probationers within its populace nationally, ACLU of Delaware said, leading to a cycle of release and return incarceration.

“The vast majority of those sent back to prison from probation are for minor technical violations, not for committing new crimes,” said ACLU of Delaware policy advocate Javonne Rich in a news release. “This creates a justice system that sets people up to fail, rather than for successful rehabilitation.”

The report’s findings are detailed online at peoplenotprobation.com​.

According to the ACLU, some of the reforms needed include:
• End Operation Safe Streets and the Governor’s Task Force.
• Eliminate probation sentences for minor convictions.
• Stop incarcerating people for technical violations.
• Customize probation terms to meet individual needs.
• Measure the probation department’s success by its ability to keep people on probation from incarceration.
• Collect and publish race data.
• Invest in community-based reentry programs to provide formerly incarcerated people the help they need.
• Limit probation terms to one year.

A 60% reduction in probation violations and cut in average time of incarceration from four months to two would save Delaware $37 million or more in savings by 2025, ACLU of Delaware Executive Director Mike Brickner said.

“In times of fiscal crisis, those dollars are even more important and can go to our schools, social services and economic development,” he said.

Ultimately, according to the ACLU, the report indicated “the immediate need for change in order to create a probation system that promotes successful completion of probation, victim restoration, effective reentry and reduced crime.”

Incarcerations for technical probation violations have dropped during the COVID-19 outbreak. There were approximately 900 fewer people incarcerated between February and August, according to the ACLU, due to new Department of Correction policy and other factors.

According to the ACLU, the number of probationers dropped from 12,694 on Feb. 11 to 10,579 in August. The ACLU speculated that the reduction could be attributed to multiple factors, including:
• Reduced crime.
• Changed policing methods that caused fewer people to be charged with a crime and ultimately sentenced to probation.
• Judges being cognizant of the impact on the defendant and the system of placing another person on probation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, or even the DOC making the determination that additional monitoring was no longer necessary.
• Phone or video check-ins were utilized to lessen the odds of coronavirus spreading, according to the report.

“These temporary changes that were made in response to the COVID-19 crisis, though minor, have improved the probation system for the better and did not create any negative consequences,” the ACLU reasoned in the report.

“They should become the new normal.”

Also, according to the report, “Delaware’s probation system continues to disproportionately impact Black people, and much work is needed to change the culture of probation and fund reentry services that will help those struggling as they exit prison.”

More information on the Delaware Campaign for Smart Justice is online at aclu-de.org/en/campaign-smart-justice.

The report includes state Attorney General Kathleen Jennings’ overview of a “fair and equal justice system,” along with a thankful nod to the ACLU’s “ongoing advocacy to continue the progress we’ve made on criminal justice reform, from arrest and prosecution to probation and reentry.”

The ACLU of Delaware was established in 1961 and is part of a national organization that’s existed for nearly 100 years.