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AG Denn Offers Slate Of Criminal Justice Reform Ideas

Date Posted: Thursday, October 15th, 2015
Categories:  Criminal Department of Justice DOJ Press Releases

Plan Highlights Include: Reductions In Some Minimum Mandatory Sentences, Tough Treatment of Gun Offenses, and Steps To Minimize Child Involvement In the Criminal Justice System and Ensure That Innocent Persons Do Not Receive Criminal Records

With a goal of a more fair and just criminal justice system, Attorney General Matt Denn Thursday unveiled a collection of proposed reforms that include reducing minimum mandatory sentences for some offenders, and maintaining his effort to close loopholes in the state’s gun crime laws. The plan also includes ideas for investing in law enforcement and drug treatment; for changes in the treatment of juveniles, and for ensuring the accuracy of the criminal justice system.

“We are the Department of Justice, and the goal we seek in each individual case is justice,” Attorney General Denn said in unveiling the proposed legislative and procedural changes.

A major piece of the proposal is a revision of the state’s habitual offender law to eliminate the mandatory life sentence imposed upon conviction of a third violent felony, and to significantly reduce the minimum mandatory sentence imposed upon conviction of a single violent felony, where the crime follows conviction of three non-violent felonies. Under Denn’s proposal, habitual felony offenders would still receive mandatory jail sentences, but those sentences would be tied more closely to the actual crimes that had been committed rather than being automatic life sentences.

“The Department of Justice will not only drop its past opposition to changes in the state’s ‘three strikes and you’re out’ law, but actually propose some changes in that statute to make sentences more appropriate to for the crimes they are punishing,” Attorney General Denn said.

An outline of the criminal justice reform proposals by Attorney General Denn:

 Scaling Back Delaware’s “Three Strikes And You’re Out” Minimum Mandatory Sentencing Law To Make The Punishment Fit The Crime

Delaware’s current “three strikes and you’re out” minimum mandatory sentencing law requires life sentences for three-time violent felons no matter what their felony was. As a result, persons are serving life sentences in Delaware for felonies such as burglary and drug offenses. The Attorney General will propose legislation to eliminate automatic life sentences for three violent felonies, and instead propose that the mandatory sentence for a third violent felony be the maximum sentence for that individual felony.

Delaware’s current law also requires that a person who has committed three non-violent felonies (which can include such things as aggravated graffiti, drug possession, and possession of burglar’s tools or shoplifter’s tools), and then commits a violent felony, be sentenced to the full maximum sentence applicable to the violent felony. The AG will propose legislation that would cut this mandatory sentence in half for a first-time violent offender, giving the sentencing judge discretion to determine if a longer sentence should be required.

 Guaranteeing Jail Time For Individuals With Violent Felony Records Who Illegally Possess Guns

The Attorney General’s Office will continue to advocate for the passage of legislation to guarantee jail time for young adults with violent felony records as juveniles who are later found to be illegally in possession of a firearm, closing a loophole in Delaware’s gun laws.

 Allowing Persons Who Were Sentenced Under Sentencing Laws That Are Subsequently Modified By The Legislature To Have Their Sentences Reviewed

Under current Delaware law and court rules, only the Department of Correction can apply for an inmate’s sentence to be reviewed after 30 days has elapsed from the sentence, even if the state changes the statutory penalties that it believes should be applied to that person’s crime. The AG’s Office will offer legislation that would allow persons who were sentenced under a law that is subsequently modified by the legislature to ask that their sentence be reviewed. The proposed legislation will give priority to persons whose crimes did not cause direct physical harm to others, such as property crimes and drug crimes. It will also require that a process be established to have petitions from persons who committed violent crimes reviewed on paper before any hearings are held, in order to minimize the burden on victims of crime.

 Expanding Investment In Front-Line Law Enforcement, Treatment, And Prevention Efforts

Some of the changes being proposed will, if enacted into law, likely reduce the number of inmates incarcerated at Delaware prisons. Our proposed legislation will require that the savings realized from any reduction in the inmate population be directed into real expansion of front-line law enforcement efforts, crime prevention programs, and drug treatment programs.

 Keeping Juveniles Out Of The Criminal Justice System

Delaware law currently requires schools to report any incident involving a student 12 or older that would constitute a misdemeanor assault to the police. That means that any fight between students ages 12 and up that results even in just a bruise must be reported. Attorney General Denn will propose legislation to eliminate the mandatory reporting of misdemeanor assault incidents, limiting such mandatory reports to more serious offenses, and instead give parents and principals discretion to make the decision as to whether to report less serious incidents as crimes.

Currently, Delaware law allows juveniles to have portions of their juvenile records expunged under limited circumstances. Proposed legislation will expand the number and type of offenses for which juveniles can seek expungement, provided that petitions for expungement of more serious cases be heard by the Board of Pardons rather than Family Court. It will also seek to minimize the cost of expungement petitions, so young people are not deterred from seeking expungements for financial reasons.

 Ensuring Accurate Gathering Of Evidence In Criminal Cases

After consulting with law enforcement agencies, DOJ will be issuing statewide guidelines for evidence-gathering in four areas: stopping and questioning of individuals, recording of custodial interrogations, identification of witnesses, and appropriate use of body-worn cameras. These guidelines will be designed to ensure that evidence gathered by police agencies meets current legal and constitutional standards, and that it also comports with evolving science as to how to ensure that evidence is gathered in a way that generates accurate outcomes.

 Reviewing Cases Of Persons With Bona Fide Claims That They Have Been Wrongly Convicted

The Attorney General will seek to create a new position in our Office of Civil Rights and Public Trust that will be dedicated to reviewing claims of actual innocence – persons who claim that they were either convicted of or pled guilty to crimes when they did not in fact commit a crime. These claims may be based upon newly discovered evidence, or a further review of evidence that existed at the time of the conviction. The Department will not be revisiting any existing court decisions upholding the binding nature of plea bargains, but instead will be creating an internal safety valve so it can determine if persons who were innocent of any crime entered a plea or were convicted.

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