House chambers in Dover

The House chambers of Legislative Hall in Dover

A total of 19 bills related to criminal justice reform in Delaware were unveiled by state lawmakers Thursday.

They cover a variety of issues that face adults as well as juvenile offenders and are designed to address longstanding issues that have led to prison overcrowding, disparities in sentencing and a high rate of recidivism.

Judges would receive more discretion in crafting of sentences. "Stacking" of charges would be reduced. Revocation of drivers' licenses for unpaid fines would be prohibited. Also, many drug crimes (Title 16) would no longer be designated as "violent felonies."

"When we talk about criminal justice reform, it's also about economic opportunity and economic justice," State Senator Darius Brown (D- 2nd District said). "I believe that a criminal record should not be a lifetime sentence to poverty."

Brown's name is on several of the bills, including one that would make the option of expungement more widely available for offenders.

The measures have the support of the ACLU of Delaware and Attorney General Kathleen Jennings, who last month announced a set of internal reforms regarding how cases are prosecuted and resolved.

"If enacted, these bills would represent the boldest package of criminal justice reforms in modern Delaware history," Jennings said. "People across the state understand that punishments ought to match individual offenses, that people returning to our communities should be able to find the opportunity for an honest and dignified life, and that smart reform can achieve progress without compromising public safety."

The Justice Department, Office of Defense Services and other groups described as stakeholders collaborated with the General Assembly in developing the bills.

"Instead of focusing solely on punishment and incarceration, our criminal justice system should be keeping communities safe, treating people fairly and using our fiscal resources wisely," ACLU of Delaware staff attorney Karen Lantz said. "This package of reform bills will help Delaware make important progress toward that goal." 

Delaware's drug code would also be simplified under one bill by removing geographic factors that have more impact on people who live in urban areas as opposed to suburban and rural areas. 

Most of the bills are being circulated for sponsors in the General Assembly.

According to Brown, the measures adequately balance public safety concerns with bringing about fairness and equality in the justice system.

"We have to be restorative in our justice policy," Brown said.

Reporter - Anchor

Mark Fowser is a veteran journalist in Delaware.