House Dems Introduce Juvenile Justice Bills

DOVER – House Democrats introduced a series of juvenile justice reform bills focused on helping kids affected by the criminal justice system to have a chance of leading successful lives.

Young people in contact with the judicial system are vulnerable, and each interaction impacts how they approach typical milestones, such as finishing school, finding their first job and even securing stable housing. These four juvenile justice measures, introduced Wednesday, give youth in Delaware an opportunity to thrive as adults, while still holding them accountable for their actions.

“This package of bills is about doing right by Delaware’s children. The status quo needs adjustment, so we need to collaborate and work to pass meaningful criminal justice reform,” said Rep. David Bentz. “We need to adjust our current system so we are supporting youth and their families, not forcing them into a cycle of incarceration.”

In 2016, Delaware was awarded nearly $1 million in federal grant money to develop and implement a strategic blueprint to reform the state’s juvenile justice system. These bills build on those efforts and further the General Assembly’s work from last session, in which lawmakers championed policies that addressed the treatment of juveniles as they enter the justice system and move through the judicial process.

“Delaware’s at-risk children need to know that there is a way to break the perpetual cycle of crime and incarceration,” said Lisa Minutola, Chief of Legal Services for Delaware’s Office of Defense Services. “These bills will enable the juvenile justice system to treat children fairly and appropriately while still achieving the goals of rehabilitation and accountability. This package will allow these youth to start fresh and find a path towards a better future.”

House Bill 6, sponsored by Rep. Bentz, D-Christiana, expressly establishes a juvenile’s right to counsel in Family Court delinquency proceedings as well as describing the process by which he or she can waive the right to counsel. Under the bill, a waiver would not be permitted unless the youth has engaged in an in-person meeting with an attorney to be informed of the right to counsel and the consequences of proceeding without it.

“Studies show that adolescents are more likely to be involved with risky behavior as their brains are developing, which hinders how they make decisions in difficult and emotional situations,” Rep. Bentz said. “We should be supporting policies that help them work though those issues.”

Delaware’s civil citation program, which is administered by the state’s Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services, would be expanded under House Bill 8. The program allows law enforcement officers to issue citations to youth for first-time offenses such as underage drinking and disorderly conduct and in turn, juveniles who abide by the citations will not carry criminal records for the offenses.

Sponsored by Rep. Debra Heffernan, HB 8, would amend the program to add possession of marijuana paraphernalia to the list of offenses that trigger a citation, and allow a juvenile to be issued a second citation if the additional offense was not the same, and more than 18 months have elapsed since the first transgression.

“We want to hold kids responsible, but still allow them to spend precious time with their families and in school, rather than miss vital growth opportunities while in juvenile detention for a lower-level, nonviolent mistake,” said Rep. Heffernan, D-Brandywine Hundred South. “A mistake shouldn’t ruin someone’s entire life. If we inhibit kids’ opportunities with harsh punishments, we have a greater potential of hurting our society and economy.”

Studies show that being part of a community and feeling a sense of belonging can be transformative, a National Collaboration for Youth report cites, and that may be even more critical for young people who are in conflict with the law. The report, which looked at moving to a community-based juvenile justice system, suggested that strong community services and wrap-around support mechanisms are needed.

Even if a young adult’s record has been cleared of a criminal charge, their mug shot and name have the potential to live on the internet. House Bill 7, sponsored by Rep. Sean M. Lynn, raises the age at which a juvenile’s information and photo could be released by the state and addresses etiquette for publically-managed social media pages. The amended language does not apply to children who face charges as an adult in Superior Court.

“A criminal charge in and of itself has a long-term impact on a child, impacting his or her social and academic performance. That impact can be debilitating – and that is without even taking into account that the individual’s name and photo exist on the web and are at the whim of negative social media posts. It almost defeats the purpose of an expungement,” said Rep. Lynn, D-Dover. “This legislation takes into account those consequences and will make it so youth will have a better shot to rebuild their lives, find jobs and pursue educational opportunities.”

It’s important to adapt our system to the changing tide of juvenile justice reform, said Rep. J.J. Johnson, lead sponsor of House Bill 9.
HB 9 updates existing state law to allow Superior Court judges to have discretion to consider transferring certain youth age 15 or older who are initially charged as an adult back to Delaware’s Family Court system for final resolution and rehabilitative services when warranted. Those offenses include rioting and wearing body armor during the commission of a felony.

“In certain cases, it can be more beneficial – for the judicial system and the child – if a juvenile is tried as a juvenile. We may be able to intervene in that child’s life and divert them from going through the revolving door of recidivism,” said Rep. Johnson, D-New Castle. “Currently those charges cannot be transferred, but with this discretion judges will be able to make more informed, nuanced decisions.”

These bills come as Delaware recognizes the 50th anniversary of In re Gault, a landmark ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that juveniles are entitled to the same due process rights as adults, including legal representation, when they are charged with a crime or facing a delinquency.

It’s necessary to provide due process to all children in contact with the criminal justice system, said House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, lead sponsor of a house concurrent resolution that will be introduced next week to commemorate the anniversary.

“Children deserve to be advised of their constitutional rights, whether they are 15 or 20, so preserving this court ruling is crucial. We’re fortunate that the Office of Defense Services provides representation for all youth who need it,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach. “Navigating the judicial system is difficult and we need to ensure fairness and the best possible outcome for all parties involved.”

HB 6, 7, 8 and 9 will be introduced in Wednesday’s pre-file.