LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Reforms protect public safety, ensure fairness in Delaware criminal justice system

Sen. (Colin) Bonini’s recent opinion piece (“Senate Bill creates a more dangerous Delaware,” Letter to the Editor, April 3) regarding the habitual offender reform bill passed by a bipartisan majority in the Delaware State Senate illustrated two unfortunate traits of current politics: misinformation and demonization. Both merit response.

To correct the facts: The intent of Senate Substitute 1 to Senate Bill 163 is to address some irrational and disproportionate minimum mandatory jail sentences that have been imposed on those designated habitual offenders under Delaware’s law.

Under current law, many people who burglarize houses receive the same minimum mandatory sentences as people who commit homicides. And some people who have committed their first violent felony receive minimum mandatory sentences of decades in jail. Certainly, many offenders should receive long jail sentences — including those who have committed crimes such as carjacking and rape mentioned by Sen. Bonini. But the disproportionate sentences deserve discussion.

Gov. Jack Markell

Gov. Jack Markell

Under the bill, everyone who is considered a “habitual offender” currently will remain a habitual offender, subject to up to life in prison. And with the exception of some drug offenses, everyone who receives a minimum mandatory jail sentence now will continue to receive a minimum mandatory jail sentence.

However, rather than every person who has committed three violent felonies receiving mandatory life in prison, the mandatory sentences will be based on the seriousness of the crime.

If the third violent felony is first-degree rape, to use Sen. Bonini’s example, the minimum mandatory sentence will still be life. But if it is first-degree burglary, the minimum sentence will be 15 years — though a judge will always be able to impose up to life in prison.

For habitual offenders who have committed only one violent felony, they will receive lower minimum mandatory sentences than they currently receive — but again, a judge will always be able to impose up to life in prison.

It is only fair that changing the sentencing law going forward means the state should give some consideration to those sentenced under the old law. Under SS 1 to SB 163, a limited number of current inmates whose specific situations match the changes in the law will be able to ask a court to revisit their sentences once they have served the new minimum sentences for their crimes. Contrary to the implication in Sen. Bonini’s article, no one will receive an automatic change to their sentence; no jail doors will automatically swing open.

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Matthew Denn

Once they have served any otherwise applicable minimum sentence, inmates can ask to appear before a judge. The Attorney General’s Office, correctional officials and victims will all weigh in. The judge will have to review a current assessment of the risk the inmate poses to the community, and the judge will have to make a record of the reasons for any change he or she may make in the sentence.

The petition process is designed to ensure that public safety is not jeopardized. Moreover, the first set of petitions would be from inmates serving time for drug offenses, followed by inmates serving time for property offenses. Long before any person who has harmed another person is able to file a petition, we will be able to see if the courts are handling these petitions responsibly — we are confident that they will, but if not, we will be the first ones to ask the legislature to change this part of the law.

The state has always had provisions that allowed it to review the sentences of current inmates. Since 1897, the state has had a Board of Pardons that could recommend commutations of sentences to the governor.

For decades, the state has had a law that allows the Department of Correction to petition the Court to modify the sentences of current inmates. The provisions in SS 1 to SB 163 allowing for limited sentence reviews are an extension of longstanding practice in Delaware.

Unfortunately, Sen. Bonini — who heard all this when the bill was presented to the Senate has chosen to demagogue the issue and impugn the motives of those seeking to impart what they see as some fairness to the system. Such demonization is not necessary or typical.

Sen. Bonini sponsored a bill in 2010 (SB 187) that allowed murderers on death row to bypass the Board of Pardons in pursuit of a gubernatorial commutation. He voted against legislation in 2014 (HB 408) to ensure the solvency of the state’s victim compensation fund. He voted against a bill in 2012 making home invasion a separate crime (HB 277). We recall no one suggesting he was for coddling murderers, punishing crime victims, or approving of home invasions.

We have disagreed on criminal justice issues in the past without denigrating one another, and a return to respectful, fact-based dialogue when discussing them would be a service to our state.

Gov. Jack Markell
Attorney General Matt Denn
Dover

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