Attorney general sees progress for reform legislation

Sentencing, expungement updates moving though Legislature
May 20, 2019

Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings told a Lewes audience May 14 that she loves her job, and wakes up every morning happy.

Following her 2018 landslide election to office, Jennings set forth changing department policy and developing a comprehensive package of legislation to reform Delaware's criminal justice system.

“We can make the criminal justice system fairer for everyone,” she told about 50 people attending a Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice forum.

Among the package of bills announced in March, Jennings said the most important is House Bill 5, which would reform concurrent and consecutive sentencing by allowing judges the discretion to sentence prison time concurrently when appropriate.

“This is the one we've got to get done,” she said. “I know judges who have left Superior Court because they felt like they have no say.”

As the system works now, she said, prosecutors figure out sentencing in courthouse hallways by using a system that bargains out charges and years.

“The judge has to accept it because it's a bargained resolution,” she said.

The bill was moved out of the House Judiciary Committee May 15, and awaits action in the House.

Also moving through Legislative Hall is an expungement bill that unanimously passed the Senate in April. It was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee May 8 and awaits action by the full House.

Jennings said the bill would clear criminal records that hinder employment and other opportunities for many people. She said she is optimistic bipartisan support for the expungement bill will continue with the rest of the criminal justice reform bills.

“I have tremendous hope we will get things done,” she said.

During a question-and-answer session, an area restaurateur said he hires people out of prison for his business who say prosecutors are still overcharging people for crimes.

“The thing that I'm hearing is that we have too many laws. What I'm hearing is the power is really with the prosecutors who could've pled these nonviolent offenses over all this time,” he said, asking Jennings how she plans to change the system.

Jennings said she is working with her department to reduce the number of charges filed against defendants and the severity of the charges, particularly drug charges when a citation can be issued instead of a criminal charge.

“But some of the changes are legislative,” she said, referring to the criminal justice reform bills introduced this session.

Still, she said, the state is becoming safer, and she cited decreasing rates of recidivism, crime and incarceration as good indicators. Despite the good news, however, Jennings said there has been an uptick in domestic violence deaths nationally and in Delaware. She is unsure why domestic violence statistics are increasing.

Speaking last for the night, one audience member said she knows why. As a victim of domestic abuse, she said, her protection from abuse order has been worthless. “I have a PFA against a man, and he is never held accountable. He's broken into my house, my doors are ripped off, and the police will let him out,” she said. “I feel like everything is geared to helping the criminal. What are you doing for people like me? You wake up happy every day. I wake up scared to death, frustrated and angry and I don't want to live like that.”

Jennings said she would look into the woman's case. “Let's talk after this,” she said.

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