Lawmakers announce major criminal justice reforms

Attorney General Kathy Jennings speaks at the Criminal Justice Press Conference at the Legislative Hall in Dover. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

DOVER — Democratic lawmakers and criminal justice officials announced an ambitious package of bills Thursday aimed at reshaping the criminal justice and prison systems to make them fairer and more equitable.

The “boldest package of criminal justice reforms in modern Delaware history,” as Attorney General Kathy Jennings described it, consists of 19 separate bills that would lessen the prison population, reduce sentences and make it easier for offenders to reintegrate back into society.

“It’s difficult, it’s bold, but it’s necessary,” House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said at a news conference detailing the legislation. “What we are proposing lays out a vision for a better future for our state.

“We understand that whenever someone comes in contact with the criminal justice system, it leaves a lasting impression and can change their lives forever. The reality is we have a broken system and a lot of work to do if we ever hope to create a fair and effective criminal justice system.

House Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst, D-Ber, speaks at the Criminal Justice Press Conference at the Legislative Hall in Dover. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

“We cannot simply incarcerate our way into public safety. We cannot lock people up, throw people away and offer them nothing without hope that one day they will be able to return to their communities with the tools to become successful and not fall again to the traps that led them into the prison system in the first place.”

If enacted, the bills would reform sentencing, offer more resources to inmates leaving prison and lead to a stark decline in the state’s incarcerated population, both by releasing individuals from jail and by imprisoning fewer people in the first place — all stated goals of Democratic officials.

Specifics of the proposals include:

•Expanding the ability of the Board of Parole to offer conditional release for inmates

•Creating a new commission focusing on sentencing guidelines

•Enabling judges to issue sentences concurrently rather than consecutively to prevent “stacking”

•Eliminating most aggravating factors for drug crimes, which disproportionately impact individuals living in cities

•Generally lessening penalties for drug offenses

•Offering tax credits to employers who hire ex-convicts

•Broadening the circumstances under which an adult can obtain an expungement sealing his or her criminal history

•Mandating courts consider an individual’s financial situation before assessing fines and fees

•Limiting what the court can impose financial penalties for

•Forbidding the suspension of a driver’s license due to the failure to pay fines and fees

•Preventing youth younger than 12 from being prosecuted except for rape and murder

•Ordering charges to be based off when the offense occurred, not when charges were handed down, meaning more individuals will be tried as juveniles for crimes committed as minors

•Making underage possession or use of marijuana a civil violation rather than a criminal offense

•Establishing underage possession or use of alcohol as a civil violation

“Let’s be clear about the stakes here: what we do over the next few months can change thousands of lives in Delaware,” Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, said.

The measures follow legislation approved in recent years that decriminalized marijuana, altered mandatory minimum sentences, gave judges more discretion and revised bail, among other things.

Advocates for reform say the justice system has suffered from a decades-long tough-on-crime policy that has proven to be both expensive and ineffective and has unfairly impacted minorities and poor people.

About 23 percent of the state’s population is black, but, according to the Department of Correction, 60 percent of inmates as of 2017 were black. The state issued almost 45,000 warrants for people who did not pay fines or court costs for misdemeanors in 2017 and jailed 129 people in the first six months of 2018 solely for failing to pay assessed costs.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a national think tank, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 698 out of every 100,000 people in jail. Delaware’s rate is even higher than that, the organization says, with the First State imprisoning people at a rate of 756 per 100,000 individuals.

While the bills were touted by Democratic officials and reform advocates, opposition from some quarters is assured, and amendments may be needed to make proposals palatable to others.

House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said he can likely support some of the changes but wants to have a discussion with the courts, police and supporters first.

Rep. Short did take issue with some of the measures, such as the proposal that would prohibit criminal charges for those 11 years of age and younger, describing it as a “free ride” for offending youths that could lead to gang members paying someone under 12 to commit crimes.

Any criminal justice reform attempt needs to consider more than just the impact on offenders, he believes.

“I think the whole host of these bills are more about the criminal aspect of what we’re doing, and on the flip side, there’s another complete side that we need to be aware of and that’s the victim, and that’s where I think we have had most of our concern at this particular point,” he said. “Where is the fairness for the victim on the side of where these crimes come out?”

The bills, which are expected to be filed over the next two weeks, come as some lawmakers and Chief Justice Leo Strine push a complete overhaul of the state’s criminal code. The effort, which was unsuccessful last year, would simplify current criminal statutes, and supporters believe it would make the code fairer.

Both Chief Justice Strine’s code rewrite and the reform package build off prior criminal justice committees, and it’s unlikely the General Assembly will choose the code modernization over the bills announced Thursday.

In a statement, Chief Justice Strine said he supports the steps toward a better criminal justice system but hopes “these are incremental steps toward, and not a substitute for, fundamental and comprehensive criminal justice reform” involving a code rewrite.

A spokesman for Gov. John Carney in an email wrote the governor is in favor of “efforts to make Delaware’s criminal justice system more fair for all Delawareans” but did not take a specific stance on any of the bills.

The bills are backed by the Delaware Department of Justice, the Office of Defense Services and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.

“Today and over the next few months, we have an opportunity — an opportunity to address major issues in the criminal justice system and an opportunity to lead the nation by rejecting a false, cynical choice between progress and public safety, between compassion and justice,” said Ms. Jennings, who was elected attorney general in November. “We can and must choose both, and we will.”

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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