Signed: 3 Juvenile Justice Bills that Do Right by Delaware’s Kids

DOVER – Governor John Carney signed into law three bills aimed at helping Delaware youth affected by the criminal justice system lead successful lives on Thursday.

Passed unanimously in the House this session, the measures clarify a juvenile’s waiver of counsel rights, expand Delaware’s civil citation program and give the Courts more latitude to assess judicial transfers.

Studies show that 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 new laws will help youth move past an indiscretion after they’ve been held accountable so they can hit those milestones with ease.

“We want all Delaware kids to become healthy and productive citizens of our state. That includes preventing kids from going down the wrong path and ensuring resources are available to help them learn and move beyond their mistakes,” said Governor Carney. “This package of legislation gives adolescents a better chance to do just that. Thank you to the members of the General Assembly for their leadership on this issue.”

House Bill 6, sponsored by Rep. David Bentz, 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.

“Kids need to be held responsible for their actions, but that accountability shouldn’t throw them through the revolving door of recidivism,” said Rep. Bentz, D-Christiana. “These policies help Delaware move toward meaningful criminal justice reform that helps children succeed, not fail, as they rebuild their lives. I am proud to be part of the effort to support children and their families as they navigate the difficult and daunting juvenile justice system.”

House Bill 8, sponsored by Rep. Debra Heffernan, expands Delaware’s civil citation program, which currently 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. The program now includes possession of marijuana paraphernalia to the list of offenses that trigger a citation from a law-enforcement officer, and allows 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.

“A child’s mistake shouldn’t ruin their entire life. If we inhibit kids’ opportunities with harsh punishments, we have a greater potential of hurting our society and economy,” said Rep. Heffernan, D-Brandywine Hundred. “By expanding the civil citation program, we allow kids to be held responsible for their actions while continuing to spend time in school and with the support of their families. These new laws together will help children thrive as they reach adulthood.

House Bill 9, sponsored by Rep. James “J.J.” Johnson, 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.

“In some cases, a youth is better tried as a youth not as an adult. We may be able to point a juvenile on a new path away from crime, and make a lasting impact,” said Rep. Johnson, D-New Castle. “With HB 9 signed into law, now judges will have the discretion to consider that nuanced decision in certain cases. This is another policy advancement that will hopefully help break the cycle of recidivism.”

These bills 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.

“Too often we see young Delawareans become victims of a one-size-fits-all system that is daunting to navigate,” said Lisa Minutola, Chief of Legal Services for Delaware’s Office of Defense Services. “The legislation signed today ensures that Delaware’s youth retains legal counsel during critical stages, in addition to granting our judicial and law enforcement officers the necessary discretion to evaluate cases on an individual basis.”