New Delaware laws aim to help ex-cons reassimilate

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The final piece of a criminal justice-reform package, designed to give ex-offenders the opportunity to contribute to society, is headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 217 eliminates the arbitrary loss of a driver’s license for crimes that have nothing to do with automobiles. Losing one’s driver’s license, Gov. Jack Markell said, was one of many obstacles hindering ex-offenders from finding and holding a job. 

“To reach our state’s full potential, we need to give all our people the opportunity to contribute, and that includes ex-offenders who have repaid their debt to society,” Markell said on Thursday following the bill’s passage in the Senate.

Earlier this week, state lawmakers passed a bill allowing the Dept. of Correction to hire ex-felons into a short-term job training program. Employment lasting up to six months would be offered to those who demonstrate exceptional job skills while enrolled in a qualifying vocational program. 

The bill‘s prime sponsor, Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle, said the Dept. of Correction approached state lawmakers about the idea. 

“We want people who are imprisoned to gain useful job skills that will allow them to become productive members of society once they are released, but we are blocking them from obtaining a job with the department that helped train them,” Johnson said. 

“And because it’s paid for by money earned by our correctional industries, it won’t impose an additional burden on taxpayers,” said Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna, the measure’s lead Senate sponsor. 

Earlier this month, the General Assembly passed sentencing reform legislation that allows judges to impose concurrent sentences for multiple offenses. Prior to its passage, Delaware was the only state that forced judges, without exception, to impose consecutive sentences. 

Markell said the new law is part of his effort to reduce prison crowding. 

“We have an incarceration rate that is higher than the national average in a country whose average is higher than the rest of the world’s, and the enormous expense of our approach hasn’t made us any safer,” said Markell. “Judges should have appropriate discretion to craft a sentence that is suitable for an individual offender. This is a step toward a better, fairer justice system.”

Last month, the governor signed into law a “ban the box” bill.  It prohibits public employers from asking job candidates to check a box on their applications if they have a criminal record. 

Markell outlined his criminal justice agenda during his State of the State speech in January. 

“Too many of the inmates we release end up going back to prison. One of the best predictors of whether a person will commit another crime is whether they have a job,” Markell said in January. “If we know employing ex-offenders helps make our communities safer, why are we putting so many hurdles in the way of job opportunities for ex-offenders?” 

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