Updating Delaware’s violent felony law

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 (Shirley Min/WHYY)

(Shirley Min/WHYY)

In an unprecedented move, some Delaware state leaders are proposing to remove some crimes from the state’s violent felonies list.

“We’re stepping back and saying that some crimes on that list don’t belong there because they’re not truly violent and should not have the extraordinary consequences for people who commit them, that come with being on the list,” said Matt Denn, attorney general for Delaware. 

Denn, along with state Representative J.J. Johnson and state Senator Margaret Rose Henry, the bill’s prime sponsors, announced legislation on Monday to update the statute classifying violent felonies.

The most significant change being proposed would remove some lower level drug possession felonies out of the violent category. Possession of non-dealer quantities would still be considered a felony, just not a violent one, Denn said.

“Dealing drugs, we consider to be a violent felony; possession of drugs we do not consider to be a violent felony so we’re seeking to amend the law to reflect that,” Denn said.

“This legislation that we have before us today is not, I don’t consider being light on crime, it’s being just,” Rep. Johnson, D-Wilmington, said. “It would also reduce the prison population and produce savings which could be used or be available for re-investment.”

According to the Delaware Dept. of Correction, its annual per-inmate cost of incarceration last year averaged $36,000. Johnson suggested the money saved could go towards health care; Denn said the savings could help fund drug treatment.

“What this will do will be make it clearer to the courts what our intentions are, and it will also continue to protect the public against hardened criminals who really need to be put away,” said Sen. Henry, D-Wilmington East.

Punishment fitting the crime

The legislation that will be introduced as a House bill this week was prompted, in part, by earlier legislation currently before state lawmakers.

“What this bill does actually is really to correct something that we were trying to do with an earlier piece legislation that would’ve been too punitive particularly towards juveniles and particularly towards those who have drug offenses,” Henry said. 

AG Denn, Henry and other state lawmakers proposed a bill in January that would guarantee prison time for offenders with prior violent crimes on their records, caught with guns.

Denn said, hypothetically, someone with a criminal history of drug possession could face a 10 year minimum jail sentence down the road because possession of any amount is currently considered a violent felony. That hypothetical, he said, emphasized the importance of having violent felonies truly be violent. 

Apostle Thomas Weeks of New Destiny Fellowship on Wilmington’s Eastside also attended today’s news conference in Wilmington. Speaking on behalf of the young men and women who “get caught up in the web of crime, and then find themselves way above their heads,” Weeks is hopeful this legislation will give them years to start over, instead of years staring at prison bars.

“As a minister who has to deal with families who are losing young men and women for long periods of time, I say thank you, God bless you,” Weeks said.

The proposed bill would also remove two additional felonies from the list: providing drug paraphernalia to a minor and escape after conviction, without using force or harming another person.

Resisting arrest with force or violence and promoting sexual solicitation of a child would be added to the list of violent felonies.

“We did not take this action lightly. The way that this list was put together was to ask some of our most senior criminal prosecutors for their opinions,” Denn said. “And then after they put together the list, we ran the list past a number of different law enforcement agencies to ensure that they were also comfortable with it.”

A state law creating the list of violent felonies was enacted 19 years ago. Since then, state leaders have tinkered with and added to the list, but have never substantively removed any crimes off the list.

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