Legislative session to revisit criminal justice reform, state finances

Sussex County delegation say they are ready to work with newcomers
January 11, 2019

Sussex County legislators returned to work Jan. 8 with their eyes on criminal justice reform and state finances.

A bill calling for tighter budget controls – supported by Gov. John Carney and Republicans – was defeated by Democrats last session but is sure to make a reappearance, legislators say.

“That bill is coming back,” said Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes. “I really feel that just because times are fiscally good now, that's not going to last forever.”

The bill would have established a benchmark based on state revenue growth, capped spending in good years and created a reserve to use during economic downturns.

“It's something that has to happen for the benefit of our state,” said Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton.

Smyk said some legislators took offense at former State Treasurer Ken Simpler getting credit for the budget smoothing bill, but now that there is a new state treasurer he is optimistic the measure will pass this session. “I don't care whose name is on it,” he said.

As a constitutional amendment, the bill would need three-fifths majority in each chamber, and it would have to be passed in two consecutive General Assemblies.

“We're hopeful that it will pass,” said Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown.

Briggs King said she also plans to keep working toward significant prison and criminal justice reform.

She said Delaware's unified prison system, with maximum and minimum supervision at one site, should be examined.

“I'm not sure we need to put habitual offenders and serious felons with those who are in for less,” she said.

Those out on bail awaiting court action also need proper supervision and oversight, she said. “We have to have enough people to properly supervise those people who are going to be out waiting for trial,” she said.

Funding is an important piece of the puzzle for prison reform to succeed, Smyk said.

“It's been underfunded for a decade,” he said.

More money is needed to increase salaries and staff so that a situation such as the 2017 prison riot that resulted in the death of Correction Officer Lt. Steven Floyd never happens again. Funding is also needed for prison programs to help those incarcerated. “The correction system can't handle the programs they offer now because they don't have the staffing,” he said.

Legislators said they have heard nothing concrete on whether bills on legalizing marijuana or allowing assisted suicide will be proposed after both failed in last legislative session. Assisted suicide never made it to the House floor for vote; legalizing marijuana was defeated after it failed to get enough votes in the House during the final days of the last session.

Still, with 12 new members in the House of Representatives and five in the Senate, anything could happen.

“We have a lot of new people, and that could mean new ideas,” Briggs King said. “No one knows where they stand on these issues, and we're going to find out.”

Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, could not be reached for comment.