DOVER, Del. (AP) — Delaware lawmakers are proposing a wide range of criminal justice reform measures aimed at modernizing sentencing, protecting the rights of juvenile offenders and reducing barriers to employment for criminals released from prison.
Among other things, the bills unveiled Thursday would eliminate sentencing enhancements for many drug crimes, make it easier for offenders to get their records expunged and prohibit the prosecution of anyone younger than 12 for any crime other than murder or rape.
Lawmakers also want to make consumption of alcohol or marijuana by a person under age 21 a civil offense rather than a crime.
The proposed reforms come after the Democrat-controlled General Assembly rebuffed calls from Delaware's chief justice for a sweeping overhaul of the state's criminal code.
Lawmakers formed a committee in 2014 to study the criminal code, resulting in legislation calling for a comprehensive rewrite that was introduced last year, but the effort was scrapped amid criticism from then-Attorney General Matt Denn.
"The criminal reform package introduced today moves toward a fairer criminal justice system, and that is progress to be supported," Chief Justice Leo Strine Jr. said in a prepared statement. "We hope that these are incremental steps toward, and not a substitute for, fundamental and comprehensive criminal justice reform. Without a fair, proportionate, and equitable criminal code, you cannot have a fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory criminal justice system."
Attorney General Kathleen Jennings, meanwhile, said the proposals, if enacted, would represent "the boldest package of criminal justice reforms in modern Delaware history."
Jennings said Delaware's criminal justice problems include incarceration and recidivism rates above the national average, an overburdened prison system, and "a body of collateral consequences that can make a normal life, a law-abiding life, nearly unattainable for the 90 percent of inmates who will return to our neighborhoods."
The criminal justice system needs to be "fair and equal for everyone," Jennings added as a group of Democratic lawmakers looked on.
The proposed reforms include giving judges more discretion to impose concurrent, rather than consecutive, sentences and removing drug trafficking crimes — including drug dealing resulting in death — from the list of crimes designated as "violent felonies" and can bring more severe sentences. Another bill would revise drug laws to eliminate enhancements based on prior drug offenses and shrink so-called drug-free school zones by eliminating the inclusion of a 300-foot radius around school property.
Lawmakers also want to give tax credits to employers who hire ex-offenders and reduce the impact of criminal history as a barrier to obtaining a license to be a plumber, HVAC technician, electrician or massage therapist.
Other bills would limit the authority of courts to further penalize people who don't pay fees, costs and restitution; and simplify burglary and robbery laws to eliminate duplication in cases involving home invasion or carjacking.
Republican House Minority Leader Daniel Short said he agrees that Delaware's criminal justice system needs to be changed but would like to hear input from Strine and police agencies.
Short also said officials need to consider victims, not just offenders, in reforming the criminal justice system.
"Where is the fairness for the victim on the side of where these crimes come out?" he asked. "That victim world, I think, is not being fully addressed here."