Three of four Democratic candidates in Delaware’s Attorney General primary discussed solutions to mass incarceration during a debate in Wilmington Monday evening.
During the debate, Lakresha Roberts, Chris Johnson and Kathy Jennings argued for finding ways to deter Delawareans from entering the criminal justice system.
Roberts, a former chief deputy attorney general, said she will work to expand diversion programs for juveniles, and rehabilitative services for former inmates after they are released.
“People have lost faith in the criminal justice system, and they want to see real reform,” she said. “And the way that starts is moving prosecutors away from an approach that has been traditionally tough on crime. They have to be trained, we have to focus on how we’re evaluating prosecutors’ performance and making sure those people in community struggling with substance abuse and mental health and have committed low level crimes and don’t present a risk in our community are maintained in our community.”
Jennings, also a former chief deputy attorney general, said she wants to offer rehabilitative services to individuals struggling with drug addiction as an alternative to prison, and will diversify her office to better represent the community.
“A leader first sets the mission of the office, which is to reform our justice system and continue that hard work until it is fair and equal to everybody, regardless of the color of your skin, the size of your wallet and where you live,” she said.
“The way you begin to change is to choose leaders who share your mission. The job is to be fair. The job is to make sure the justice system works — and right now we have serious flaws. Fighting change is not easy. It does not always make you popular, because it requires courage, because once you begin the hard [work] of change and we see a fairer more just more equal system, then more change will follow.”
Johnson, a former deputy legal counsel to Gov. John Carney, said the state needs to reallocate its resources away from the Department of Correction and toward prevention programs and training for police officers.
“The first change is bring in national experts to work with local jurisdiction. We have to continue the network that some of us have with national experts and those who have done it right,” he said.
The candidates say one way to reform the criminal justice system is to end the cash bail system — which they say puts low income individuals at an unfair disadvantage.
“People shouldn’t be in prison for $200 dollars,” Johnson said. “They should be out in the community, as long as they don’t pose risk to the community.”
The candidates say they also support mandatory expungements for adults for certain crimes to avoid the lengthy process of filing a petition, seeking legal advice and paying fines.
“We have a Port of Wilmington expansion coming, and we have in the city of Wilmington a lot of individuals who won’t be eligible to work at that port, and that’s sad,” Johnson said.
The candidates also addressed questions on the role of the attorney general’s office in handling shootings by police and other alleged wrongdoings by officers.
Roberts argues there aren’t enough investigators or attorneys in the Office of Civil Rights and Public Trust to effectively prosecute these cases. She said she’s also in favor of revising laws that currently are lenient on officers.
“The law itself makes police shootings difficult to prosecute,” Roberts said.
Jennings said she would support de-escalation training for police, while Johnson said he strongly supports a citizen’s oversight committee.
The candidates also say they follow other attorneys general in the U.S. who have vocalized opposition to Trump administration policy.
“It is equally important to protect our civil rights from the current administration,” Jennings said. “There is a threat to roll back women’s reproductive rights, I will fight those attempts to dismantle those rights and I will work affirmatively to ensure women’s rights in our state, including the Equal Rights Amendment, which should pass, and a woman’s right to equal pay and a woman’s right to be free from sexual harassment in the workplace.”
Johnson said he would be “Trump’s worst enemy” in regards to vocalizing opposition to certain policies, while Roberts said she’s already been on the “front line” to protect citizens from “discriminatory policies coming out of Washington.”
During the debate, the candidates also expressed opposition to the death penalty, support for programs for those with mental health and addiction issues, and support for the legalization of marijuana — something Gov. John Carney has not endorsed.
Tim Mullaney, a former chief administrative officer for New Castle County, was unable to attend Monday night’s debate. Republicans have not yet officially filed a candidate in the race. The primary is not until September.