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Delaware Senate Democrats

Senate Passes Legislation To Stop Minors From Being Held In Adult Prisons

May 18, 2021

DOVER – The Delaware Senate on Tuesday passed legislation to end youth incarcerations in adult prisons, marking the latest measure in the 2019 criminal justice reform package to clear the General Assembly.

House Bill 26 would mandate that any juvenile sentenced to prison in Superior Court must be held in the custody of the Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families until they reach the age of 18.

Currently, state law allows for children as young as 16 to be jailed in the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution under certain circumstances. While children incarcerated in adult prisons are required to be kept separated from the adult population, the practice effectively results in them being kept in solitary confinement inside the walls of a maximum-security prison.

Under HB 26, no juvenile would be transferred to the custody of the Department of Correction following their sentencing in Superior Court.

“Children who end up in our prison system are still children,” said Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-New Castle, who ran the bill on the floor as chair of the Senate Corrections & Public Safety Committee. “A juvenile offense should never result in maximum security prison sentence. The fact that some of them are being held in a prison system designed for adults is both unnecessarily cruel and potentially harmful to their rehabilitation. I want to thank my Senate colleagues for recognizing that this practice runs counter to the principle of fair and equal justice.”

HB 26 was refiled in December after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented its passage during the 150th General Assembly. The legislation originally was part of the 19-bill package of criminal justice reform measures introduced in 2019, 11 of which were passed and signed into law by 2020.

“A major component of juvenile incarceration is rehabilitating young people so they can lead successful and productive lives. A teenager who uses poor judgement should not have that mistake compounded by being forced into a prison system designed for adults,” said Rep. Debra Heffernan, the lead House sponsor. “The bottom line is that it is not OK to lock up a teenager in a maximum-security prison for a juvenile offense, and that is the practice we’re ending with this bill.”

HB 26 also builds on the work of retired Rep. J.J. Johnson and current Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, who co-sponsored legislation in 2018 that limited youth incarceration in adult prisons prior to their adjudication and sentencing.

“The effort to remove Delaware’s youth from adult prison facilities has been years in the making, culminating today with the passage of House Bill 26. The ODS thanks Rep. Heffernan, Sen. Townsend, and Sen. Pinkney for their continued leadership and advocacy,” said Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Office of Defense Services. “Past research has shown that imprisoning children in adult facilities has very harmful effects, including an increased risk of recidivism and a disproportionate impact on people of color. Children need rehabilitative services that address their unique needs. If we want to ensure that Delaware’s children can pursue the brightest future possible, we need to treat kids as kids – not as miniature adults.”

HB 26 now heads to Gov. John Carney for his signature.