Governor Signs Criminal Justice Reforms into Law

Wilmington – Joined by state legislators and leaders in the criminal justice community at a facility designed to serve ex-offenders, Governor Markell said reforms passed by lawmakers this year signify a new approach to addressing the many challenges related Delaware’s offender population. The new laws, most of which the Governor signed today, will better ensure ex-offenders have a fair opportunity to earn a job when they’re released and improve sentencing policies.

Markell emphasized the fact that Delaware has an incarceration rate higher than the national average in a country with among the highest rates in the world, resulting in prisons that are over capacity. Rather than making communities safer, Delaware has stubbornly high recidivism rates and ex-offenders have faced major obstacles when trying to build productive lives after their sentences end.

"With the help of leaders across our state, we are changing our approach," said Markell. “That change means that while offenders will still receive a risk assessment when they enter our system, now we know we must also perform a needs assessment that provides a roadmap to their successful reentry. And then we need to offer access to the services to meet those needs.

“It means ensuring offenders serve their time, but also that they have a fair opportunity to get a job and contribute to their families and our state when they’re released. And it means recognizing that our laws can better reflect our belief that every case should be evaluated on an individual basis to determine the appropriate punishment and path forward for each offender."

After speaking at the Hope Commission’s new Achievement Center, Markell enacted the remainder of the criminal justice agenda he outlined in January’s State of the State address by signing four bills:

  • Senate Bill 217 helps ex-offenders reintegrate into society by eliminating the arbitrary loss of a driver's license for drug crimes that have nothing to do with automobiles, removing an obstacle for ex-offenders to find and hold a job. (To implement SB 217 in compliance with federal law, Markell also signed Senate Joint Resolution 9, expressing the Delaware General Assembly’s opposition to the federal mandate requiring the suspension or revocation of a driver’s license when an individual is convicted of a drug crime unless a state passes such a resolution.)
  • House Bill 264 allows the Department of Correction to hire qualified ex-offenders into a short-term job training program to give those who have paid their debt to society a better opportunity to reintegrate into their communities. The Department can offer employment for up to 6 months to ex-offenders who demonstrate exceptional job skills while enrolled in a Level 4 or Level 5 vocational program, notwithstanding any prior felony convictions.
  • House Bill 312 changes sentencing laws to provide appropriate judicial discretion by permitting judges to impose concurrent sentences for multiple offenses. Delaware was previously the only state that forced judges, without exception, to impose consecutive sentences. 

Earlier this year, the Governor also signed House Bill 167 into law, forbidding public employers from asking job candidates to check a box on their applications if they have a criminal record because that practice was denying ex-offenders a fair chance to earn an interview.

“The men and women impacted by this legislation and those we serve at the Achievement Center have done their time and we must give them the opportunity to successfully return to our society,” said Hope Commission Executive Director Charles Madden. “We can only fulfill the Wilmington Hope Commission’s goals of improving quality of life and reducing crime and violence if we address the needs of ex-offenders.”

Legislator Comments

“Remember, this bill does not eliminate the requirement that sentences for a range of our most serious crimes are to be served consecutively,” said Senate Majority Whip Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington East, who was the lead Senate sponsor of HB-312. “But, in other cases, it gives our nationally respected judges the ability to weigh all the facts and then decide whether consecutive or concurrent sentence best fit the crimes.”

“It is a shame that Delaware is the last state to take this action, but it still is an important one,” said Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, D-Wilmington East. “By giving our excellent judges discretion, they can weigh each defendant’s situation and make the best decision for them and for justice. Our judges are on the bench for a reason, and this bill will allow them to do their job more effectively.”

“If someone is arrested for and found guilty of driving under the influence, they should bear the burden of losing driving privileges,” said Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark-Bear, who was the lead sponsor of SB 217 and SJR 9. “But, it’s another step entirely to take away someone’s right to drive, and thus to diminish their opportunities to earn a living, when a drug conviction had nothing to do with operation of an automobile. I thank Governor Markell for his support, and I am proud to sponsor legislation that moves Delaware in the direction of drug laws that both deter drug activity and also minimize the number of people likely to become stuck in the criminal justice system."

“We want people who are imprisoned to gain useful job skills that will allow them to become productive members of society once they are released, but we are blocking them from obtaining a job with the same department that helped train them,” said Rep. James “J.J.” Johnson, D-New Castle, who sponsored House Bills 167 and 264 and also chairs the House Correction Committee. “To me, it makes perfect sense that the Department of Correction would have the best idea of who they should hire. I’m proud that so many of my colleagues supported House Bill 264 and Governor Markell is signing it into law. I think we will see a positive effect from this new law over time.”

“All four of these bills improve how we deal with people who have stumbled. The question we must ask ourselves is do we, as a state, wish to kick someone who has stumbled, or do we wish to provide a hand upward?” said Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, a co-sponsor of all four measures. “SB 217 removes the automatic loss of a driver’s license from those convicted of any drug offense, while SJR 9 calls for Delaware to make this case to the federal government. The decades-old War on Drugs has been a fiasco, culturally and financially. Many aspects of it weaken our society, dooming so many people to an inescapable second-class existence. These bills, along with providing needed discretion to our judges, take several bold steps forward in reducing our incarceration culture and providing that hand upward.”