Skip to main content
Delaware Senate Democrats

Senate passes new criminal justice reform bills

May 16, 2019

Delaware State Senate Majority Caucus
Contact: Scott Goss (302) 744-4180, or
Dylan McDowell (302) 744-4282

DOVER – Legislation aimed at reducing racial disparities in drug-crime sentencing and preventing teens from getting caught up in the criminal justice system cleared the Delaware Senate on Thursday.

The passage of those bills marks the latest measures in a 19-part criminal justice reform package to receive a floor vote in the Senate.

So far, much of that work has been led by the newest members of the Delaware General Assembly.

Freshman Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, D-Wilmington, is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 47, which seeks to revise the state drug code, while Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Brandywine, sponsored Senate Bill 44,  legislation that would convert underage consumption of alcohol from a criminal act to a civil offense.

Last month, the Senate also unanimously passed a bill sponsored by freshman Sen. Darius Brown, D-Wilmington, that seeks to provide people who have paid their debt to society with a second chance by expanding the state’s criminal record expungement process.

“Working closely with our allies in law enforcement and the Attorney General’s Office, we are making real progress in undoing some of the unintended consequences of our harshest crime policies,” said Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, a co-sponsor of every bill in the reform package. “My colleagues in the Senate deserve a tremendous amount of credit for advancing these reforms, which will have a real and direct impact on people’s lives.”

Attorney General Kathy Jennings also cheered the legislations’ passage.

“These bills embody lessons learned from harsh and reactionary crime laws that have proliferated over the years,” she said. “These are smart policies that keep low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system, reduce the burden of collateral consequences attached to criminal records, and help close the racial disparities in the impact of our drug laws. I’m grateful to the Senate for passing them, and to Sens. Lockman and Sturgeon in particular for their leadership and advocacy.”

SB 47, which passed the Senate on Thursday by a vote of 20-0, aims to address the disproportionate impact of Delaware’s drug laws on communities of color by streamlining the weight classes, reducing the “aggravating factors” and eliminating the “prior qualifying offenses” currently used to calculate sentencing.

“That existing combination has contributed to some of the most extreme racial disparities we see in our criminal justice system today,” Lockman said. “Whatever the intent was, those laws have contributed to record high incarceration rates for African Americans without any measurable reduction in violent crime. That is the hallmark of a broken system that my colleagues and I believe we have a moral obligation to fix.”

As of 2017, African-Americans made up roughly 60 percent of Delaware’s prison population despite accounting for just over 20 percent of the state’s total population. Recent data shows that from 2016 to 2018, black defendants were nearly three more likely than white defendants to be charged with a felony drug offense, while white defendants were significantly more likely to face a misdemeanor as their highest charge. In each of Delaware’s three counties, about two-thirds of those arrested for felony drug charges with aggravating circumstances also were black.

Much of that unequal justice is directly linked to the way Delaware’s drug crimes are written.

SB47, for instance, would reduce the triggers used to impose mandatory minimum sentences by eliminating proximity to churches and parks from the list of aggravating factors, while reducing the proximity to schools factor to include only crimes involving drug dealing.

Evidence shows that the use of those factors is having a disproportionate effect on people of color because churches, parks and schools tend to be heavily concentrated in urban areas, significantly increasing the likelihood of that those aggravating penalties will be imposed on defendants arrested in cities compared to suburban and rural communities.

The bill also collapses the drug weight classes from five tiers to three and removes mandatory sentence enhancements that tend to disproportionately impact those struggling with a substance abuse disorder, rather than the criminals responsible for dealing drugs.

SB44, which passed the Senate by a vote of 20-0, seeks to prevent teens of all ethnicities from becoming trapped in the criminal justice system based on one of the most common indiscretions in their age group: underage consumption of alcohol.

The legislation retains all of penalties, which range from driver’s license revocation for 30 days to fines of up to $500. The bill would simply convert violations from a criminal to a civil offense, and bar those infractions from appearing on someone’s criminal record during a background check.

“This bill is designed to prevent someone from struggling to find work or housing as an adult due to their poor judgment in their teens,” Sturgeon said. “Too often criminal records become an inescapable burden and a youthful mistake can set someone on a path from which they cannot escape. I think we all want one of these incidents to be a teachable moment, not a life sentence.”

Both bills now head to the House for a final vote.