Attorney General hopefuls call for reforms in criminal justice system

DOVER — Delaware’s criminal justice system is full of injustices, Democratic candidates for attorney general agreed Tuesday.

Two pledged to push for marijuana legalization, and all four agreed they would change policies to free individuals previously jailed for certain drug offenses and to promote greater racial equity in the system.

Dozens of people turned out for a debate at the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Delaware sponsored by the lodge and the Central Delaware National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The forum featured hopefuls for the state’s top law enforcement job and for the 17th Senatorial District.

Four of the five people running for attorney general were present (with LaKresha Roberts arriving halfway through due to a scheduling conflict), while two of three candidates for the state Senate seat were in attendance.

The candidates for attorney general pledged to revamp the state’s criminal justice system, although Tim Mullaney was unwilling to go as far as Chris Johnson and Kathy Jennings, who both said they support legal cannabis and allowing many prison inmates to vote.

“It is one of our greatest constitutional rights,” Ms. Jennings said of voting.

The War on Drugs, Mr. Johnson told the audience, has greatly harmed communities of color. He repeatedly emphasized that minorities are disadvantaged in the current criminal justice system, with blacks making up a disproportionate segment of the state’s prison population.

“We have this incremental change, but people who look like me are hurt the most, and that’s why this is so personal for me,” Mr. Johnson, who is black, said.

The candidates sounded similar notes on the subject of helping children, saying they would push for more funding and programs to help youth, especially those from impoverished or violent areas.

“We have to recognize we have at-risk children,” Mr. Mullaney said. “We have to do things different to help them. They’re our future, and if we don’t act now, we’re not going to be able to act at all.”

Ms. Roberts, who missed the questions on drugs and voting rights, said she was running to give Delaware’s children a better future.

“What bothered me as a prosecutor is seeing young people funneled into a system only to become adults on the back end,” she said.

Candidates avoided going after one another, except for one instance where Mr. Johnson questioned why his opponents did not do more to effect policy change while they were with the Delaware Department of Justice.

Ms. Jennings leaned heavily on her experience as state prosecutor, a position she held from 2011 to 2016, while Mr. Mullaney referred several times to his time as the agency’s chief of staff from 2011 to 2014. Ms. Roberts was chief deputy attorney general from 2017 to 2018, and Mr. Johnson was deputy legal counsel for Gov. John Carney in 2017.

Also seeking the post is Republican Peggy Marshall Thomas, the former chief Sussex County prosecutor.

Attorney General Matt Denn, a Democrat, is not seeking a second term.

While the attorney general’s race seemed to be the main attraction for many attendees, some posed queries to Trey Paradee and Donyale Hall, both of whom are aiming to replace the retiring Sen. Brian Bushweller, a Democrat. The district centers around Dover.

Rep. Paradee, a Democrat, has held the 29th Representative District seat for the past six years. Ms. Hall, a small-business owner, is competing with Camden Mayor Justin King for the Republican nomination. Mr. King was not present.

Both Ms. Hall and Rep. Paradee said they opposed a Department of Education regulation that would have allowed students to self-identify their race and gender without parental consent.

“I took great issue with the piece that would strip me of my parental rights,” Ms. Hall said.

After public outcry, the proposal was modified.

Rep. Paradee pledged to push for expanded voting access, but unlike several of the candidates for attorney general, he expressed opposition to allowing incarcerated individuals to vote.

“Where is a person’s place of residency? Is it Vaughn Center (in Smyrna)?” he asked. “In that case, whoever’s running for the 14th District better figure out a way to door-knock for the Vaughn Center.

“But honestly, I truly believe when you’re in prison you’re there to pay your debt to society. You give up certain freedoms. Voting should be one of them.”

He supports greater gun control and marijuana legalization, while Ms. Hall described herself as a Second Amendment advocate and said she was open to discussion on recreational cannabis.

The primary is Sept. 6.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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