Forum focuses on racial inequality in justice system


DOVER — The last of a series of public hearings held by the Access to Justice Commission’s Committee on Fairness in the Criminal Justice System focused on drug laws, capital punishment and racial biases Wednesday night. Citizens provided testimony and, in many cases, called for changes to laws.

Established one year ago by Chief Justice Leo Strine, the commission and its subgroups focus on improving the legal system, particularly to benefit traditionally marginalized groups, such as minorities, the mentally ill and the poor. The subcommittee on fairness held three previous meetings throughout the state, and many of the same topics brought up at those forums were discussed again Wednesday at William Henry Middle School.

“What is also reassuring is that a lot of the concerns brought by the (community) are validating what we as a commission had already raised,” Department of Correction Commissioner Robert Coupe said afterward.

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Robert Coupe

Based on the testimony, policy changes could be made and legislation introduced to combat the issues shared by citizens. The state as a whole has already made steps toward lightening some sentences and treating drug use, particularly since Attorney General Matt Denn took office in January.

About 40 Delawareans were in attendance at the most recent hearing, with 17 sharing their thoughts on — and in several cases, experiences with — Delaware’s judicial and correctional system.

“When looking at the numbers and statistics at first glance, one may believe that the best thing to do is be harder or tougher on crime,” said Eugene Young, advocacy director for the Delaware Center for Justice. “I submit it is time for our cities, counties and state to re-examine our practices and become smarter on crime.”

Delaware’s drug laws were one of the most commonly mentioned topics. Several people said addiction should be treated as a disease, not as a criminal act, and the state should focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Legalizing marijuana was another common refrain, one that drew applause on several occasions.

“This war on drugs is actually a war on the streets. Any time you have a war there’s going to be violence,” lawyer Tom Donovan said, arguing poor people are the ones “forced to bear the burden and cost of the war on drugs.”

Multiple speakers said they believe legalizing marijuana would greatly reduce the amount of violence plaguing Delaware’s largest cities.

Others called for an end to the death penalty. A bill to repeal capital punishment in Delaware passed the Senate earlier this year but stalled in a House committee.

Molly Keogh, a board member of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty, cited statistics showing black murderers are more likely to be executed than comparable white ones, and Ann Coleman called the punishment a “useless piece of garbage.”

Wednesday’s meeting, coming one day after a jury found a white Dover police officer not guilty of assaulting a black suspect, was particularly timely and meaningful for some.

Justice is “supposed to be blind,” Ronnie Holloway said of the just-concluded trial. “I think they had a blind over our eyes.”

Nine speakers raised issues of racial bias in the justice system, arguing black men and women are charged with crimes and sentenced at a higher rate than white ones.

A report by the Delaware Criminal Justice Statistical Review Committee analyzing data from 2000-2005 concluded at the time the state’s population is about 20 percent black but its prison population is 64 percent black.

Other topics raised included re-entry programs, spending more money and time on education and ending the state’s three strikes law. The three strikes law imposes a mandatory life sentence for someone convicted of three violent felonies, but Mr. Denn, a Democrat, has proposed removing it.

Several citizens urged the commission to recommend changing bail practices, which they said are unfair to the poor.

But not everyone in attendance favored greater leniency.

Lorin Jones, a bail bondsman, was strongly in opposition to eliminating bail, arguing bondsman help ensure individuals charged with a crime show up for court dates

“We provide a vital and needed service to the citizens, and we do that on our own dime, at no cost to the Delaware taxpayer,” Mr. Jones said.

After the nearly two-hour hearing, Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, expressed surprise at what had been discussed.

“This commission absolutely does not reflect the feelings and values of the overwhelming majority of Delawareans,” he said.

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