Skip to main content
Delaware Senate Democrats

Senators Mantzavinos, Townsend and Hansen introduce bail reforms aimed at protecting public from violent offenders

April 29, 2021

DOVER – Sen. Spiros Mantzavinos, Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend and Sen. Stephanie Hansen filed legislation on Wednesday designed to prevent defendants accused of dangerous and violent offenses from being released before their scheduled trials.

Co-sponsored by Sen. Mantzavinos and a dozen legislators from both chambers and both political parties, Senate Bill 7 would establish secured cash bail as the baseline used by the courts to determine the conditions of pre-trial release for people accused of 38 serious offenses, including gun crimes, domestic violence, rape, child sexual abuse and several Class A offenses.

Senate Bill 11, sponsored by Sen. Townsend, is the first leg of a preventative detention amendment to the Delaware Constitution that would allow bail to be withheld entirely for cases involving those same offenses if there is clear and convincing evidence that a defendant presents a danger to public safety or no other condition will assure their appearance in court. Currently, the Delaware Constitution only permits bail to be withheld in capital murder cases.

“Just as our courts must weigh the evidence before them, we need to find a balance between common-sense policies that protect our community from violence and reforms that create a fairer and more equitable justice system,” said Sen. Mantzavinos, D-Elsmere, the prime sponsor of SB 7.

“Delawareans deserve to sleep at night knowing their court system will keep violent and repeat offenders behind bars, while also preventing people charged with low-level offenses from languishing in prison based solely on how much money they have in their pockets,” he said. “We cannot allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking this is an either/or proposition. We can do both and this legislation will help us strike that balance even as we continue our work to eliminate money from the equation entirely.”

Attorney General Kathy Jennings voiced her support for the bail reform legislation introduced Wednesday.

“The Delaware Department of Justice doesn’t control bail decisions, but it’s as clear to us as it is to everyone else that Delaware’s bail system isn’t working,” Attorney General Kathy Jennings said.

“In a just system, nobody would be in jail for low-level offenses simply because of their poverty, and no dangerous criminals would walk free just because of their wealth. We accomplished the first half years ago, but despite the efforts of several legislators the second half of the job still isn’t done,” she said. “Ultimately, our state needs to pass a constitutional amendment and end cash bail altogether, and the Senate has started that process. In the interim, SB 7 will keep our communities safe and help ensure that violent offenders can’t reoffend while they’re awaiting trial.”

Delaware took its first meaningful step toward bail reform in 2018 when former Rep. J.J. Johnson and Sen. Townsend passed legislation that encouraged judges to first consider pre-trial release conditions before setting cash bail. At the time, more than 700 people were being held in jail solely because they could not pay bail, despite bail amounts as low as $5,000 or less in many cases.

In 2019, Sen. Townsend attempted additional work on the issue by introducing an amendment to the Delaware Constitution and a companion bill that would have further moved the First State from a cash bail system, while critically retaining the discretion of judges to continue imposing cash bail if they could show such steps were required to protect public safety. Neither bill received a final vote, however, due to the abbreviated legislative session necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Constitutional amendment introduced today is the product of numerous stakeholder discussions and years of work to reform our state’s reliance on cash bail as its main instrument for ensuring defendants who are up for their day in court,” Sen. Townsend said.

Sen. Hansen, the co-prime Senate sponsor of SB 7 and SB 11, added: “The people of Delaware should not be asked to sit idly by for the three years it will take to amend our Constitution. That is why we are taking steps now that will simplify the rules around our bail system, ensure preventative detention is being used to protect Delawareans while upholding the presumption of innocence enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and providing our courts with the tools they need to base their decisions on the facts of each individual case.”

SB 7 explicitly retains the discretion of the courts to set minimal cash bail based on the facts of each individual case and the flight risk posed by each defendant. The legislation also requires an automatic secondary bail review hearing in Delaware Superior Court for defendants charged with the serious offenses spelled out by SB 7.

If passed, the legislation also would require the courts to document the specific reasons used to set bail so both defendants and victims can understand their reasoning, while providing a record for future proceedings, such as bail modification hearings.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done to reform and modernize Delaware’s bail system, but part of our ongoing effort is to ensure that the system is working to keep all residents safe,” said House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, the lead House sponsor of SB 7. “While people are innocent until proven guilty, not all offenses are equal. We have a responsibility to protect residents when there are serious, violent crimes committed. I believe this bill builds on our earlier efforts at bail reform and strikes a balance between nonviolent and violent crimes.”

SB 11, meanwhile, would provide discretion to the courts to determine whether bail should be withheld in a wider variety of cases involving violent and dangerous offenses, and only when there is overwhelming evidence to justify such a ruling.

“I believe wholeheartedly in the need for bail reform. Too many people have been held indefinitely for a low-level crime simply because they can’t scrape together bail, a system disproportionately impacts poorer people and people of color,” said Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, the lead House sponsor of SB 11. “But a person who is charged with a violent crime could present a danger to the community, and that is why we are proposing this amendment. We generally have a very good, very qualified judiciary, and we should enable them to make decisions that will protect the public from a person who could pose a threat.”

SB 7 has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee while SB 11 has been assigned to the Senate Executive Committee.