Juvenile Justice Reform Bills Signed into Law


DOVER – Recognizing the need for more productive and targeted handling of young offenders, Gov. Jack Markell signed a trio of measures into law Tuesday that seek to reform aspects of Delaware’s juvenile justice system.

The three new laws, advanced this year by House and Senate Democrats, impact the treatment of juveniles as they enter the justice system and move through the judicial process. A fourth bill, signed in June, guarantees that all children facing criminal charges and allegations of delinquency have the right to an attorney. These measures were supported by both the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of Defense Services.

“These common sense reforms reflect our juvenile justice system’s focus on rehabilitation and demonstrate to young people in our criminal justice system that they have real opportunities to build a future for themselves and that caring adults throughout our government and service-providing community are committed to their long-term success,” Gov. Markell said.

“I want to thank Governor Markell and all of the legislators who have championed these juvenile justice reforms,” said Lisa Minutola, Chief of Legal Services for the Office of Defense Services. “We all want the best for Delaware's children and these reforms will ensure that each kid has a fair shot at a prosperous future, despite any past childish mistakes. No child should be introduced to the justice system in restraints and we should do everything in our power to ensure that Delaware's kids with no prior criminal record do not get caught up in the system.”

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.”

A fourth component of the juvenile justice reform package, House Bill 382, codifies the Office of Defense Services’ current practice of representing every juvenile that requests representation. Prior to the enactment HB 382, there was no legal requirement that juveniles receive representation in court.“Too many bright futures have been derailed by a tough-on-crime approach that doesn’t offer second chances, and as a society we must do better,” said Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, who sponsored SB 198. “This legislation is a signal to young people that those who learn from their mistakes and take the appropriate steps toward progress can count on a government that propels them forward instead of holding them back.”The third piece of legislation signed Tuesday, Senate Bill 198, streamlines procedures to allow for certain juvenile offenders to have their criminal records expunged. This change will assist children who may lack the resources, knowledge, and family support to file an expungement petition on their own.

“We’re fortunate that the Office of Defense Services provides representation for all youth who need it, but we can’t rely on current practice as a guarantee for the future,” said Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, lead sponsor of HB 382. “Navigating the judicial system is difficult enough for an adult, so you can only imagine how daunting it is to a juvenile. We need to guarantee that all youth will have legal representation in court to ensure fairness and the best possible outcome for all parties involved.”