House panel OKs criminal justice reforms

DOVER — Legislation approved by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday would make underage drinking a civil offense and prohibit anyone younger than 12 from being prosecuted except for murder and rape.

Part of an ambitious criminal justice package announced months earlier and supported by a host of Democratic officials, the measures are based on a belief that youth should be treated differently than adults, with several people Wednesday noting the brain is not finished developing until around age 25.

“We need to do better in Delaware,” said Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Office of Defense Services. “We need to get them help in a system that is not the juvenile justice system.”

Currently, no one younger than 10 can be prosecuted unless the court deems the accused competent to stand trial. House Substitute 1 for House Bill 10 would raise the age limit to 12, with exceptions for murder and rape.

The bill also includes language allowing someone younger than 12 to be prosecuted for a violent felony or misdemeanor if the court determines the individual is competent, although that section would expire Jan. 1, 2021.

A child could be required to take part in a diversionary program through the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families.

In the case of someone older than 12 but younger than 16 being accused of a crime, the bill says the Family Court, not the Superior Court, would have jurisdiction. A 16-, 17- or 18-year-old charged with the most serious forms of murder, rape, assault, robbery or kidnapping would go before the Superior Court, however.

Senate Bill 44 would make possession or consumption of alcohol by anyone younger than 21 a civil offense, meaning it would not appear on a criminal record.

Under an amendment to the bill, only first and second offenses would be civil violations. The change, which is supported by the sponsor but has not been formally attached to the legislation yet, would also end suspension of a driver’s license for underage drinking.

Fines of $100 for a first offense and between $200 and $500 for any subsequent violations would continue to exist.

Stumping for the legislation, Ms. Minutola told the committee most cases involving individuals younger than 12 are dismissed because judges rule the kids should not stand trial.

Many children who break the law do so because of bad home lives, and they should receive help rather than being treated like hardened convicts, which often leads to them actually becoming career criminals, she said.

Representing the Department of Justice, Lauren Vella said House Substitute 1 for House Bill 10 “reflects our values that children under 12 need support and health services, not a criminal record.”

Trumpeting the underage drinking bill, main sponsor Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Woodbrook, urged lawmakers to understand that people make mistakes. Underage drinking is extremely common, and youth caught using alcohol shouldn’t be harshly punished for the offense, she told the committee.

Similar legislation to the underage drinking bill but for marijuana is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

While those two bills received little opposition, another measure aimed at treating children less punitively saw more dissent.

House Bill 76 would transfer jurisdiction for anyone under 18 convicted in the Superior Court from the Department of Correction to the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families. The measure was ultimately released from committee but only after sometimes fierce debate, with several people questioning whether the change is fair and would have the desired effect.

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