Attorney General Jennings trying to balance legal playing field

DOVER — Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings insists her initiatives for criminal justice in Delaware are not designed to be for or against police officers throughout the state.

Rather, Ms. Jennings said her initiatives are designed to make the legal playing field more equal for everybody and were the result of long talks with a group of prosecutors in trying to create a fairer justice system for the state.

Kathy Jennings

“When I was elected to be Delaware attorney general and came into office, my mission was crystal clear, and that was to make the criminal justice system fairer and more equal for everyone regardless of the size of their wallet, the color of their skin or the ZIP code where they live,” Ms. Jennings said.

“Voters across the state were demanding that the criminal justice system become a model system and not one that is fraught with racial injustice and injustice to low-income people, as well.”

Dover City Councilman Ralph Taylor heard her presentation recently and thought it would be a good idea to have her discuss criminal justice reform efforts during a virtual Council Committee of the Whole meeting July 28.

“I heard the presentation during the Racial Equality and Social Justice Collaborative meeting about two weeks ago, and I thought it was very informative,” Councilman Taylor said, “and in the wake of the civil unrest that we have been going through, I thought it important that these points, these initiatives, be brought before council and before our community for open discussion.”

Some of the highlights of Ms. Jennings’ 40-minute talk to Dover council members included:
• Adopting a statewide use-of-force standard for every police agency.
• The establishment of a statewide civilian review board.
• Reforming the Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights.
• Banning the use of knee- and chokeholds.
• Expanding community policing.
• Mandatory and universal body cameras.
• Reforming probationer search programs.
• Making police disciplinary hearings more transparent.

Ms. Jennings’ proposed criminal justice reforms have been discussed since well before the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25, which sparked protests and demands for criminal justice change across the country.

“This is not a pro-police or antipolice issue. Quite frankly, this is a justice issue,” Ms. Jennings said. “I’ve heard many, many times over the past several months that there are no problems in policing in Delaware, and I do believe that the vast majority of police in our state are police officers because they want to help other people because they care deep in their hearts about the communities that they serve.

“But we know from past experiences and some pretty recent experiences that there are some officers that flagrantly disobey the law, who treat people unjustly. We cannot have that in our system and that’s how we end up as a community that doesn’t trust the police.”

She added, “It’s important to us that we are reforming a system to build community trust between police, between law enforcement and the people that they serve.”

Ms. Jennings said that people suffering from addiction and mental illness should be diverted safely into treatment programs, rather than go directly to prison following an arrest.

“As a matter of police, in our office, we de-emphasize low-level drug crimes that have long been an entry point in our system for nonviolent offenders to go into prison and have disproportionately impacted Black people,” she said. “We are no longer seeking warrants because someone is unable to pay a fine or fee. That’s simply a hamster wheel of injustice where we are imprisoning poor people who can’t pay their fines and fees, taking them from their jobs and from their families.”

She added that Delaware has stopped a “three strikes and you’re out” program for those convicted of drug offenses and that has helped people receive treatment rather than extended prison time.

Gov. John Carney applauded Ms. Jennings’ work towards criminal justice reform.

“We have a responsibility to make sure Delaware’s criminal justice system is fair to all Delawareans,” Gov. Carney said in a statement. “We’ve been focused on helping all offenders in Delaware successfully reenter 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.”

She said her office’s efforts have helped crime statistics decline within the state.

“In our own office, we have dramatically reduced the number of times when prosecutors seek habitual-offender status for nonviolent crimes, and those have been reduced by 90% during the first year of my administration,” said Ms. Jennings. “Crime overall continues to fall. I know in Wilmington and in Dover, there is a gun violence issue that dominates, and we are laser beam focused on gun violence.

“So, when I talk about the fact that crime overall continues to fall, I’m still cognizant of the fact that we need to prioritize the prosecution of gun violence, as well.”

Ms. Jennings said a lot of bipartisan work toward social justice reform has taken place with the leaders in the General Assembly, changing how the criminal justice system functions.

However, she said there is a lot more difficult work that needs to be done.

“More work is necessary for all of us to have faith in the fairness of our justice system,” Ms. Jennings said. “So, even though we were able to pass tremendous legislation in this past session, including expungements of criminal records that enable people who have criminal records who couldn’t get jobs, to get jobs, now, we’re fighting for police reform, as well. I have tremendous respect for the very difficult job (police officers) have and the very difficult decisions they have to make, sometimes in a split second. I am cognizant of the fact that when the rest of us are running away from danger, they are running toward it.”

She said reforming the criminal justice system in Delaware is not easy work, but it is work that she and her staff are willing to try their best to get done.

“I think as human beings, we know that it’s quite easy for us to blame others and point a finger at other people and say, ‘You need to change,’ before we’ve really done a hard look inside our own shop and inside ourselves and say, ‘What are we doing that is furthering the system that is not fair for everyone?’” Ms. Jennings said.

“These are big changes that we are proposing. Not one of these changes is going to be easy, though I do believe we can reach a consensus. It only happens when we all work together to make change.”