Attorney general wants $45 million more for at-risk kids

Matthew Denn

DOVER — Attorney General Matt Denn is urging lawmakers to allocate an additional $45 million to help children and teenagers, primarily those who come from low-income households, have criminal histories or are fighting drug addiction.

Appearing before the Joint Finance Committee Wednesday, Mr. Denn pushed for a plan developed by a coalition of nonprofits and government agencies that allocates over four years $55 million in unforeseen revenue they say will better prepare Delaware youths for the future.

The plan calls for:

• $10 million to send nurses to houses where low-income, first-time mothers live

• $10 million to sign up low-income children in early education programs

• $10 million to offer assistance to the 10 elementary schools that have the highest percentage of impoverished students

• $10 million to add after-school and summer programs to keep kids busy and off the streets

• $10 million to offer more support to juveniles leaving correctional facilities

• $2 million to create a high school solely for a handful of students recovering from addiction

• $2 million to create data systems recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify potential offenders in Wilmington

Gov. John Carney’s proposed budget includes $6 million for 43 low-income schools and $4 million for early childhood initiatives, ideas for which Mr. Denn, a Democrat, expressed support.

“Every kid in the state deserves a chance to go as far as their talent and determination will take them,” he told lawmakers.

But JFC members were hesitant to embrace his plan, noting the budget process is far from finished and the $55 million he seeks is earmarked for various initiatives and agencies in the governor’s budget plan.

“You’re counting out money we haven’t seen in the piggybank yet,” said JFC co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington.

It’s not the first time Mr. Denn has asked for more money for ambitious initiatives.

In 2015, he sought to use $36 million obtained through settlements with Bank of America and Citigroup for schools, substance abuse treatment and police patrols, but legislators were cold to the idea of being told how to spend funds, and they ended up using some of that money to balance the budget.

In addition to the multifaceted plan for youth, Mr. Denn is seeking $4 million from the Strategic Fund, the source of money used to attract companies to Delaware, to incentivize creation of long-term recovery centers.

The governor’s proposal would earmark $12.5 million for the fund. Mr. Denn, who is not running for reelection this year, said he does not know if Gov. Carney supports using Strategic Fund money to combat addiction.

A spokesman for Gov. Carney did not take a position on the matter when asked.

“As you know, the governor has submitted a balanced budget proposal for the General Assembly to consider,” Jon Starkey wrote in an email. “His plan includes $23.7 million in state and federal funding for substance abuse treatment and prevention. The governor looks forward to working with legislators as the Joint Finance Committee continues its work on the budget.”

Like many other states Delaware has been hit by the wave of opioid addiction in recent years. The First State saw 308 people fatally overdose in 2016, per the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, a “statistically significant” increase from the year before, according to the CDC.

A recent lawsuit from the Department of Justice claims there are more than 50 opioid pills in Delaware for every state resident.

According to Mr. Denn, 11,000 Delawareans are in need of treatment — but the state has only 137 beds. Furthermore, most individuals are unable to find residential care that lasts more than 30 days.

“The market is not providing for it now,” and as a result, Delaware is “sending them back into another cycle of addiction and, in some cases, overdose,” Mr. Denn said.

Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, spoke in favor of diverting many people charged with drug crimes to recovery facilities rather than prison. He noted that incarcerating someone for a relatively minor offense often leads to that person becoming a hardened criminal by the time he or she is released.

“It’s almost like we’re sending them to a university of the wrong way,” he said.

The state has taken steps in recent years to treat addiction as a disease rather than a crime, reducing penalties for some crimes, as national attitudes have increasingly turned against “tough on crime” policies and the war on drugs.

Rep. Ramone questioned Mr. Denn about the department’s lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies, asking where any money gained through it would go. The attorney general replied it would be earmarked to deal with the “consequences” of the opioid epidemic, but the lawsuit will likely take years to make its way through the system.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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