House Passes Pair of Juvenile Justice Reform Bills

DOVER – Recognizing the need for more productive and targeted handling of young offenders, the House voted in favor of two bills Wednesday that seek to reform aspects of Delaware’s juvenile justice system.

The legislation, which now heads to the Senate for consideration, would impact the treatment of juveniles as they enter the justice system and move through the judicial process. These measures have support from the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of Defense Services.

House Bill 211, sponsored by Rep. J.J. Johnson, limits the use of shackles and other physical restraints on children appearing in Family Court, except in situations where the court determines that the use of restraints is necessary. Currently, many juvenile defendants are subject to mandatory shackling, even in cases involving minor offenses such as shoplifting. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory shackling of adults in court is unconstitutional.

“The practice of leading children as young as 10 into a courtroom in chains runs counter to the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” said Rep. Johnson, D-New Castle. “If a defendant poses a danger, the option should be available at a judge’s direction, but shackling a child should not be the default procedure in Delaware.”

House Bill 405, sponsored by Rep. Debra Heffernan, codifies and expands a voluntary civil citation program for juvenile offenders that has been successfully administered by the state’s Division of Youth Rehabilitative Services. Under this program, law enforcement officers may issue citations to juveniles for first-time offenses such as underage drinking, loitering and disorderly conduct. Since these citations are considered civil matters, juvenile offenders who successfully comply with the terms of their citations will not carry criminal records for these offenses.

“Juveniles who commit crimes should face appropriate consequences, but we know that saddling young adults with criminal records that follow them into adulthood severely limits their opportunities to further their education and start careers,” said Rep. Heffernan, D-Bellefonte. “If we want our juvenile justice system to help kids become productive people after their offenses, then we need to make sure our laws aren’t standing in the way of their progress.”

“We applaud House lawmakers for passing these two bills,” said Lisa Minutola, Chief of Legal Services for the Office of Defense Services. “Delaware’s kids should have every chance to succeed. These bills provide those opportunities by offering both an alternative to a criminal record for certain offenses and by ending the practice of indiscriminately shackling kids in chains during court appearances just because their families are unable to post bail.”

A third Democratic juvenile justice reform bill, Senate Bill 189, passed the Senate Tuesday and is scheduled for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee next week. This legislation would streamline procedures to allow for certain juvenile offenders to have their criminal records expunged.