The push for criminal justice reform is now, and a new coalition is committed to seeing change this year.
The Coalition for Smart Justice – comprising the American Civil Liberties Union, Delaware Center for Justice, Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice and other groups – has joined forces to promote legislation that will reduce or eliminate prison time, particularly for nonviolent offenders.
“There are too many people in the prison system, and they stay there too long,” said Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the Delaware ACLU, during a prison reform kickoff in January in Dover.
“Organizing everybody in the state of Delaware to support this reform is really what the Coalition for Smart Justice is all about.”
MacRae said Delaware incarcerates people at a higher rate than neighboring states, and Delaware's rate is also higher than the national average. The group aims to reduce prison populations by 50 percent and also reduce the racial bias that exists in the prison system, she said.
African-Americans account for 60 percent of Delaware inmates, MacRae said, and the collateral damage from incarceration affects employment, housing, loans and overall credit.
Ashley Biden, executive director of the Delaware Center for Justice, shared the story of a woman who did not vaccinate or register her pets because she couldn't afford it, and she was fined. She also couldn't afford to pay her fines, and the amounts increased. Her driver's license was suspended, she lost her job, and she was unable to find employment elsewhere because of the warrant on file. Now she's homeless, Biden said.
“Her story is just one of many,” she said. “Victims are afraid to call the police for help. People who need medical care debate whether they are sick enough to risk calling for help. Participants report living in fear of arrest, knowing they could be stopped and arrested at any given time … It shouldn't be this easy for anyone to go to prison.”
Biden said the group supports a bill that would stop issuance of warrants for people who cannot pay their fines and prevent courts from suspending driver's licenses of people who fall behind in payments. There must be alternative sanctions for people who can't pay their fines, she said.
“We are not saying people shouldn't be held accountable. We aren't saying that there shouldn't be consequences, but we are saying that the consequences should be smart and just,” she said.
Last year, she said, more than 44,000 warrants were issued for people who did not pay fines for nonfelony charges. “The average amount owed was $340,” she said, adding four out of five warrants were issued to women and 57 percent were African-American.
Ronnell Page shared his experience with Delaware's judicial system and the repercussions that lasted years until his record was cleared. In 2007, he was working fulltime as an assistant basketball coach and disciplinarian for Concord High School when he was handcuffed and arrested at the school and charged with drug dealing. He faced 21 felonies, seven that included distribution, and he was committed to prison on $105,000 cash bond. He spent two weeks in jail before making bail, he said.
A local newspaper ran a story labeling him a high-ranking drug lord in the Route 9 drug corridor.
“Aside from the fact that Concord High School had me on video surveillance every day working, the charges of me distributing cocaine in the neighborhood during school hours still stood,” he said.
It turned out the man police were looking for was 5-feet-10-inches tall and 180 pounds, Page said, but it wasn't until a case review that a judge recognized Page was about 6-feet-4-inches tall and 250 pounds, and realized police had arrested the wrong man.
During his time in jail, Page said he met many men of color with similar stories as his – caught up in the system by no fault of their own.
“There are people doing the right thing and being arrested wrongfully. Because of the way the system is designed, they can't afford bail, they can't get an attorney, they are not learning their rights, and no one is supporting their rights,” he said. “It took me seven years to undo what happened to me in nine months.”
Across the country, MacRae said, Republicans are leading prison reform because of the high cost to keep people in prison, and also because they realize people can change and redeem themselves. However, she said, Delaware is behind the times, and the group is targeting both Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature to support criminal justice reform. Legislators on both sides of the aisle have strong law enforcement ties, she said, but she has spoken with some who support reform.
“Even retired law enforcement officials realize that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of incarceration, and we need to moderate,” she said.
MacRae said the group is working with Attorney General Kathleen Jennings on a package of legislative bills for this session. On Feb. 18, Jennings announced new guidelines her department will use to reduce the number of low-level offenders sent to prison and help those who have been rehabilitated into other settings. Jennings said she looks forward to working on legislation to change criminal statutes.
MacRae said other legislation would include bills to reduce mandatory minimums and also expunge existing charges. Expunging charges is needed for people to be able to move on in life, MacRae said. Even a small drug charge filed against someone in their youth remains on a person's record unless pardoned by the state Board of Pardons, she said.
“There are not enough opportunities for expungement,” MacRae said.
She said she expects bills to roll out by the middle of March.