COMMENTARY: Delaware’s criminal justice system gets needed scrutiny

Over the last year, the Delaware Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission has held meetings and forums on fairness in the state’s criminal justice system. The consensus — through testimony by academics, the public, and via written comments — is that Delaware has much work to do in order to rectify deficiencies in all facets of crime and punishment.

One of the impressive outcomes of the Access to Justice Commission’s meetings is the number of groups which participated in the process. Of course, there were a plethora of community and advocacy organizations involved, including the Delaware Repeal Project, Complexities of Color Coalition, Delaware NAACP, Delaware Center for Justice, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and the Delaware Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow, among others.

Additionally, a number of state government entities sent representatives to the meetings, including the Delaware State Police, Department of Correction, Office of the Governor, Office of the Attorney General, and General Assembly.

Finally, several organizations have been active in conducting recent studies of the Delaware criminal justice system, such as the Delaware Bar Association, ACLU, Death Penalty Information Center, 6th Amendment Center, and the Sentencing Project.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

When the various concerns discussed during the yearlong forums are sequentially aligned, there is clear evidence of a systemic shortcoming in how Delaware manages its criminal justice system.

Starting with the impact of Delaware history, the residue of slavery and Jim Crow were felt in how Delaware treated those of color. Next, there is evidence of racial profiling in arrests, as documented in a study by the Criminal Justice Statistical Review Committee, which found that although comprising about a fifth of the state’s population, blacks constitute over 40 percent of arrests.

Once in the Delaware court system, access to counsel by the indigent has been labeled a failure in a 2014 study by the Sixth Amendment Center. Racial disparities have been found in the areas of plea bargains, jury verdicts, sentencing, and probation within Delaware. Finally, a 2013 study by the Delaware Criminal Justice Council found alarmingly high recidivism rates by offenders, driven largely by unemployment following prison.

Both before and over the last year, there have been several noteworthy and positive developments pertaining to equal and fair treatment in the Delaware criminal justice system.

For instance, the Delaware General Assembly approved a series of reforms, including “banning the box” asking about a criminal record from public job applications, and permitting convicts to vote again after terms of their sentences are fulfilled.

In 2015, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell testified at a congressional hearing on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn has made a series of bold proposals to revise the mandatory-minimum and three-strikes sentences, to reduce penalties for certain drug offenses, and to create a post within the Office of Civil Rights to review claims of innocence.

However, there are still many areas which must be addressed. Among these are removing impediments to prisoner re-entry into society, bail reform, more drug treatment programs, better coordination of legal services for the poor, improved training of criminal justice personnel, and finding ways to reduce police-involved shootings.

On the latter issue, Gov. Markell initiated a pilot program in September to deploy a dozen cameras on state and municipal officers, asserting that the program could help protect citizens and strengthen trust between law enforcement and communities.

Given that almost three times the amount is spent annually in Delaware on housing an inmate as is spent on educating a single student, pre-empting trouble by focusing on the education system is imperative.

While there have naturally been differences of opinion on how to proceed, there is widespread agreement that the Access to Justice Commission’s initiative has been a required first step in confronting what ails the Delaware criminal justice system.

For that reason, State Sen. Colin Bonini’s recent observation that “this commission absolutely does not reflect the feelings and values of the overwhelming majority of Delawareans” [“Forum focuses on racial inequity in justice system — Drug laws and death penalty high on list of concerns,” article, Dec. 11] is both fallacious and ignorant.

We cannot bury our heads any longer to the injustices apparent in Delaware courts and prisons, so, the sooner we act, the better.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He served as a panelist at a town hall meeting on criminal justice in Delaware which was held at the Whatcoat United Methodist Church in Dover in October. Dr. Hoff has taught and published extensively on constitutional law issues.

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