Two candidates with diverse backgrounds are vying to become Delaware’s next attorney general on Tuesday.
Attorney General Matt Denn, who has held the position since 2014, decided to take a step back from politics— opening the door for someone new. Democrat Kathleen Jennings and Republican Bernard Pepukayi are eager to walk through that door.
Jennings would be only the second woman to take the position. And Pepukayi, who switched parties this year, would be the state’s first black attorney general.
Both candidates say they want to build on community policing, improve the criminal justice system and cut back on prosecuting nonviolent defendants. They also agree on several key issues; both oppose the death penalty and want to keep firearms away from individuals who pose a harm to themselves or others.
However, each brings a distinct perspective to the table and each has different ideas on how to address problems.
When Jennings joined the AG’s office out of law school, she was only the second woman in the criminal division. She prosecuted several cases involving rape and violent crime; after witnessing the anguish of homicide victims suffer, she said she was inspired to help.
Jennings tried the case of Steven Brian Pennell, who was convicted of murdering two women along Route 40 and suspected of killing three others. That experience allowed her to empathize with individuals who don’t have a voice, she said.
“The women of Route 40 gave me a bouquet of flowers after the prosecution and thanked me for treating them with dignity and respect — and that’s something I will never forget — that the women, many of whom were prostitutes, and many of them had been treated that way, felt their life mattered, and that was probably the highlight of my career as a prosecutor,” Jennings said.
She went on to serve as chief deputy attorney general and state prosecutor under the late Attorney General Beau Biden. AS a private attorney, she also represented defendants she said were unjustly treated.
“I’m running for attorney general to make Delaware a safer place for all of us to live, work and raise our children,” Jennings said. “I want the criminal justice system to be fair and equal for everyone, regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of the ZIP code we live, and regardless of the size of our wallet.”
Her opponent traveled a different path to become candidate for AG. After his 18th birthday, Pepukayi was charged with a drug-related felony he committed when he was 17. He was convicted as an adult.
At the time, Pepukayi never thought he’d live past the age of 30. And he never thought a person with his background could have a bright future.
But his attorney encouraged him to return to high school. Pepukayi got his diploma, then when on to graduate magna cum laude from college and later graduate from law school.
He said his experiences growing up in Wilmington and being involved in the criminal justice system give him a distinct perspective.
“I understand how it’s difficult for someone who may have gotten arrested, or have a charge of some sort, and can’t find a job and their back is against the wall, and at the same time, they have financial obligations or children to feed or rent to pay,” Pepukayi said.
“Yet because of their experience in the system, how they may be demonized or excluded from what we would consider most people just take for granted, and how the door gets slammed in your face over and over again.
“And how that makes you feel mentally and how that beats you down. I don’t want to beat anyone down, I want to build people up I want to build Delaware up,” he said.
He became a deputy attorney general, and was the deputy legal counsel for former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner. Pepukayi now has his own private law practice.
“Our criminal justice system doesn’t work. It over incarcerates and under rehabilitates. I believe it’s unjustly harsh to some and painfully neglectful to victims of crime,” he said. “I believe I can reduce the incarceration rate and the cost of the system that taxpayers throughout Delaware are paying for our criminal justice system, while increasing public safety and quality of life for all.”
As a state prosecutor, Jennings worked on efforts to address community issues, such as shutting down nuisance properties associated with drug activity. She said she favors community policing, and, as attorney general, she said she would require her office to go out into the community and listen to residents’ concerns.
“I strongly believe prosecutors need to be out in our hardest-hit, crime-ridden communities, and solve problems, because if we can do that, along with all the other agencies, if we can be seen as problem solvers, that community gets stronger and we get partners and we will see a drop in crime,” Jennings said.
She applauds Denn’s efforts to address the opioid epidemic and expand treatment for those struggling with addiction, and she said she would join his lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry for its contribution to the addiction epidemic. Jennings also wants to expand a county program, known as Hero Help, that allows individuals to avoid arrest if they agree to go into treatment.
She also wants to expand the list of crimes eligible for a drug diversion treatment program through the courts.
“It provides an incentive for people to work on their addiction,” Jennings said. “Eligible crimes were pretty limited for many years, but it’s pretty clear to those who work in this field that a number of other crimes are fueled by addiction.”
She said her priorities also would include protecting individuals’ rights to access to health care, including those with pre-existing conditions, environmental rights, a woman’s right to choose and LGBTQ rights.
Jennings also wants to make the criminal justice system fairer by eliminating the cash bail system and ending arrest warrants for individuals who can’t afford to pay fines.
If elected, Pepukayi said he will work to end prosecuting juveniles for minor offenses. He said many issues, such as a physical dispute on a school bus, should be solved on the school level.
“All statistics and evidence shows once they’re in the system they’re likely to stay in the system, and all the evidence shows when they’re in the juvenile justice system they’re likely to be in the adult criminal justice system,” Pepukayi said. “And it just creates a snowball effect that creates a greater likelihood of them being included in the very system that needs to decrease not increase.”
He also wants to diversify the AG’s offic to better reflect Delaware’s population; create opportunities to regularly meet with constituents; and require prosecutors to mentor at-risk youth in an effort to build trust between the community and greater law enforcement.
“Children from certain populations can have an interaction with law enforcement officers in a non-confrontational way, in a friendly way, in a trusting way, in a loving way. That child will see not all law enforcement officers are bad, and they are good people,” Pepukayi said.
“And from the prosecutorial side, it humanizes the people they’re prosecuting, it builds a relationship so they understand where these people are coming from, and some of their circumstances,” he said. “It won’t only build relationship with the child, but the child’s parents will know this community of law enforcement cares, and the parents will be affected by that trust, the siblings will be affected by that trust.
“And if there’s a crime in the neighborhood, if they don’t want to report to an officer, they still have a contact with someone they know in the system they may be able to confide in and help resolve crimes.”
Jennings won the four-way Democratic primary with 56 percent of the vote. Pepukayi was unopposed in the Republican primary.