Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn proposed several reforms he hopes will create a “more fair” criminal justice system.
He unveiled his sentencing reforms before dozens of Rotary Club of Wilmington members at the Hotel DuPont on Thursday afternoon. Denn said the state has a moral obligation to ensure that punishments fit the crime and not the other way around.
“We are the Department of Justice, and the goal we seek in each individual case is justice,” Denn said.
The AG’s ideas largely focused on Delaware’s “three strikes” minimum mandatory sentencing law, and scaling them back.
“If you commit three violent felonies and are labeled a habitual offender, you get life in prison. Period. It doesn’t matter what the violent felony is,” said Denn, who pointed out some people are serving life sentences for felonies like burglary and drug offenses.
Another part of the statute stipulates that if you commit three nonviolent felonies and then commit a fourth violent felony, the maximum sentence allowed by law for that fourth felony is handed down.
“Over the years, Delaware has turned a lot of crimes from misdemeanors into felonies. Possessing graffiti tools is a felony in Delaware so we also have people serving long, minimum mandatory sentences when they’ve only committed a single violent felony in their lives,” said Denn, who wants to eliminate automatic life sentences for three violent felonies, and significantly reduce the mandatory sentences linked to a single violent felony that follows a series of nonviolent crimes.
“People who repeatedly commit violent acts against other people should serve time in jail that’s proportional to their offenses, but if there are people in jail who are serving sentences that are clearly disproportionate to the crimes they committed, that’s a moral wrong that ought to be righted,” said Denn, whose objective is for punishments to fit the crime and afford judges more discretion in sentencing.
Denn’s announcement marks the first time in its history that the Delaware Dept. of Justice has dropped its opposition to changes in the state’s “three strikes” law.
The attorney general is also targeting a loophole he said often allows violent criminals to skirt mandatory jail time typically handed down to those who illegally possess firearms.
“If you committed your violent felony when you were a juvenile, even though you’re a person prohibited until age 25, you don’t get a mandatory sentence, even if you go out and get a gun illegally as a young adult,” Denn said. “In many cases, these are the individuals who are shooting people in our state. People who are under the age of 25 with violent felony histories that started when they were juveniles.”
Denn’s proposal, he said, will close that loophole.
Keeping juveniles out of the criminal justice system
State law requires schools to report to police any crimes involving students who are 12-years-old or older. Misdemeanor assault is the most common offense, which could mean any fight between students ages 12 and up that results even in just a bruise, must be reported.
“That teenager is then injected into the criminal justice system with consequences that can last for the rest of his or her life,” Denn said. “I think that’s too much and I’ll be asking the legislature to change it.”
He believes parents and principals should be given the discretion to decide whether to report less serious incidents as crimes.
Denn said he will also push to expand the number and type of offenses for which juveniles can seek expungement of offenses from their records.
Denn wants to allow inmates to petition the courts directly to have their sentences reviewed in certain cases. He also said by the end of the year, his office will issue statewide guidelines to law enforcement agenices for evidence-gathering to ensure that police protocols meet current egal and constitutional standards.
If enacted into law, Denn said the changes will likely reduce the number of inmates incarcerated at Delaware prisons. His legislation would take the money saved from any reduction in the inmate population and redirect it to frontline law enforcement efforts, crime prevention programs and drug treatment programs.
Denn said he will ask state lawmakers to consider his proposals in January.