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Delaware attorney general eyes criminal justice reforms

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WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Attorney General Matt Denn is proposing several changes to Delaware’s criminal justice system, including revising the state’s minimum mandatory sentencing laws, in an effort to treat offenders more fairly.

Denn said Thursday that a law requiring life sentences for three-time violent felons, no matter what the crimes, has resulted in people serving life terms for such crimes as burglary and drug offenses. He wants to eliminate automatic life sentences under the “three strikes and you’re out” rule, and instead require that the mandatory sentence for a third violent felony be the maximum sentence for that particular crime.

Denn said the proposed change has two goals: one moral, the other practical.

If a person is serving a sentence that his disproportionate to the crime, Denn said, “that’s a moral wrong that ought to be righted.

The practical goal, Denn added, is to cut costs in the criminal justice system in order to free up money to help address related needs, including more resources for police agencies, drug treatment programs, and education for low-income children.

Denn also wants to change a law under which a person who has committed three nonviolent felonies, which can include offenses such as aggravated graffiti and possession of burglary tool, and then commits a single violent felony, must receive the maximum sentence for that violent felony. Denn said he will ask lawmakers to cut that mandatory sentence in half for a first-time violent offender, giving discretion to a judge to determine if a longer sentence is warranted.

Denn would also crack down on gun crimes, including guaranteed jail time for gun possession by people prohibited from possessing firearms after being convicted of violent felonies. That includes young adults with violent felony records as juveniles.

While violent crimes committed by juveniles should be taken seriously, Denn said children should not be thrown into the criminal justice system for schoolyard dustups. He noted that state law currently requires schools to report to police any incident involving a student 12 or older that would constitute a misdemeanor assault, which means any bruise resulting from a school fight must be reported. Denn said such mandatory reports should be limited to more serious offenses, and that parents and school officials should have discretion whether to report less serious incidents as crimes.

Denn also called on lawmakers to expand the types of offenses for which people can seek to have their juvenile records expunged, with more serious cases to be heard by the Board of Pardons instead of Family Court. Similarly, the attorney general’s office says criminals should be allowed to have their sentences reviewed if the laws under which they were sentenced are later changed by the legislature. Denn said his proposed legislation would give priority to people whose crimes did not cause direct physical harm to others, such as property crimes and drug crimes.

Denn also plans to create a new position in his agency’s Office of Civil Rights and Public Trust that would be dedicated to reviewing bona fide claims of actual innocence by people asserting they were convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit. Such claims could be based upon newly discovered evidence, or further review of evidence existing at the time of conviction.

Denn noted that some of the proposals, if approved, likely would reduce the number of prison inmates, and that any resulting savings should go toward expanding front-line law enforcement efforts, crime prevention programs and drug treatment programs.

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