Criminal Justice Bills Support Fairer Sentencing, Simplifies Code

DOVER – Governor John Carney signed three bills Monday designed to simplify part of Delaware’s criminal code to make it more fair and just.

The three bills are part of the most ambitious criminal justice package Delaware has seen in a decade, which has aimed to reform the system by breaking down barriers to employment, re-focusing youth justice, reducing the ability to stack charges and supporting judicial discretion in sentencing. Of the 17 bills that have been filed, 11 have now been signed into law.

“We’ve seen time and time again: A one-size-fits-all approach to justice does not work. We are taking on bold reforms to uphold accountability, while acknowledging we have to make systematic changes to ensure a fairness in this system,” said Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, prime sponsor of House Bills 77 and 78.

“In their effort to simplify these sections of Delaware’s criminal code, these bills will give more discretion to judges and are an important step forward in working to reduce the perils of mass incarceration. Thank you Governor John Carney and Attorney General Kathy Jennings for your leadership on these measures, which will make a substantial difference in our overall reform. I’ve seen firsthand the importance of criminal justice reform in our state through powerful letters and stories at the Board of Parole and I’m proud we are taking steps forward.”

House Bill 77 would simplify the burglary code to eliminate duplication by combining the burglary and home invasion sections and to align minimum mandatory sentences. The bill would make it the crime of burglarizing an occupied home during the day as serious as if done at night.

It also would remove provisions for minimum mandatory time for prior convictions to recognize that enhanced penalties based on a person’s criminal history takes place at sentencing.

“We should take steps that will make our criminal justice system fairer for all Delawareans,” said Governor Carney. “These pieces of legislation do just that, and I was pleased to sign them into law.”

House Bill 78 would simplify the robbery code to eliminate duplication. It combines the robbery and carjacking sections while preserving enhancements recognizing the seriousness of carjacking.

“The goal of House Bill 77 and House Bill 78 is to make sure people accused of robbery and burglary face the criminal charges that accurately reflect the facts of their case,” said Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, the Senate prime sponsor of both measures. “This legislation will bring some much needed common sense to our criminal code by making it both simpler and fairer. The bipartisan support these bills received are evidence that these changes are good public policy.”

“Today marks one of the most significant steps forward for Delaware’s criminal justice system in recent memory,” said Attorney General Kathy Jennings. “The package of legislation signed today, along with the eight criminal justice reform bills already signed into law this year, does more than change Delaware’s laws. It is a rejection of the status quo by modernizing bloated and redundant laws, right-sizing individual punishments for individual crimes, and eliminating longstanding disparities in the enforcement of our drug laws. I am grateful for the work that legislators did to make this a reality and I am inspired by the voices of so many advocates who put a face and a story to these issues.”

Senate Bill 47 would simplify Delaware’s drug code with a goal of providing more fairness in its application. It would remove geographic-based enhancements that disproportionately impact those living in urban areas as opposed to suburban and rural areas.

The bill reduces the number of weight tiers from five to three with adjustments to accompanying sentences while retaining higher felony levels for weights that indicate drug dealing. It also removes mandatory sentence enhancements that disproportionately impact those struggling with substance abuse disorders and reduce the triggers used to impose mandatory minimum sentences based on a crime’s proximity to a church, park or school – aggravated penalties more likely to be imposed on defendants arrested in cities than suburban or rural communities.

“Fairness is the defining ideal on which our criminal justice system is built, yet the racial disparity in how our drug laws are being applied is both stark and shocking,” said Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, the prime sponsor of SB 47.

She noted that African-Americans make up 60 percent of Delaware’s prison population – three times their representation among the general population. Black defendants are also three times more likely than whites to be charged with felony drug offense, rather than a misdemeanor.

“Whatever the intent was, our existing drug laws have contributed to record high incarceration rates for African Americans without any measurable reduction in violent crime,” Sen. Lockman said. That is the hallmark of a broken system and I am grateful that Gov. Carney and my colleagues in the General Assembly are willing to make these changes to restore fairness and confidence in our courts.”