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Delaware Senate Democrats

Senate passes five criminal justice bills to increase transparency, protect minors

June 29, 2021

DOVER – The State Senate on Tuesday continued its ongoing work to make Delaware’s criminal justice system fairer and more transparent by sending five bills to Governor John Carney that will raise the level of accountability among law enforcement agencies and help protect children from the lifelong consequences that can result from relatively minor offenses.

Two of the measures – House Bill 215 and House Bill 243 – are part of the Justice for All Agenda, a platform of legislative priorities laid out by the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus in June 2020 as part of a nationwide movement for racial justice and police reform.

House Joint Resolution 4 incorporates recommendations from the Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force, while House Bill 115 and House Bill 241 continue progress on the 19-bill criminal justice reform package first unveiled in 2019.

Sponsored by Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown and Sen. Marie Pinkney, House Bill 215 would require police to record interrogations of anyone in their custody – regardless of whether that person has been charged with a crime – with some limited exceptions.

“Recording interrogations will help protect both law enforcement and people in their custody from false accusations by preserving an accurate record of what transpired,” said Sen. Pinkney, D-New Castle. “If we hope to restore trust in our justice system, we must be willing to eliminate secrecy, innuendo and ambiguity from the equation. House Bill 215 is a major step forward in that effort and I thank my colleagues in the Senate for moving this legislation to Governor Carney for his signature.”

Under HB 215, law enforcement officers would be required to record audio and video in most circumstances, including through the use of body-worn cameras. Interrogation subjects could refuse to participate in recordings at any time and such refusals would have to be recorded in writing or on video. The bill also directs the Council on Police Training to adopt standards and rules regarding the use of recording devices and the chain of custody that must be followed.

“Interrogations are a critical component of the law enforcement process, but too often, there are questions about what actually was said or what happened in that room,” said Rep. Minor-Brown, D-New Castle South. “Much like body cameras, taping interrogations will provide an accurate record of what happened. I’m proud that we have delivered on a reform effort we committed to last year, and I look forward to Governor Carney signing this bill into law.” 

The Senate on Tuesday also passed legislation sponsored by House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf and Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola to make information about police misconduct allegations and the names of decertified police officers publicly accessible for the first time.

HJR 4 directs the Criminal Justice Council to publish integrity reports on the number of complaints made against each law enforcement agency in the state, starting in November 2021. The resolution also would require the CJC to publish and update a searchable list of all police officers who have been decertified in Delaware in the previous 10 years.

“We’ve been working hard this year to raise the level of transparency and accountability for police in Delaware through legislation that sets a higher standard for use of force and makes police misconduct records publicly accessible,” said Sen. Sokola, D-Newark. “This resolution will help restore trust in law enforcement by drawing a clear line between the dedicated men and women who faithfully protect our neighbors and those who have violated the public’s trust.”

“Publishing reports of complaints by agency and a list of decertified officers will for the first time make this information more easily accessible to the public and provide more data for residents to know more about the police agencies that serve their communities,” said Rep. Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, a retired Delaware State Police captain. “There is no single silver bullet to addressing police reform; we must take a series of steps forward toward improving transparency and accountability. This measure is another piece of a larger puzzle of reforming our criminal justice system to improve policing and ensure the system works the way it is intended.”

The Senate also passed three bills focused on juvenile justice reform.

House Bill 115, sponsored by Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, would end the prosecution of children under 12, except for the most serious charges, and would bar transferring juveniles under the age of 16 to Superior Court.

“Adolescents’ brains aren’t fully developed until they’re in their mid-20s, so charging 10-year-olds with crimes only damages the child’s future. Too many lives have been sent down a dark path because of a youthful mistake,” said Rep. Chukwuocha, D-Wilmington North. “There are better ways to hold young children accountable for minor incidents without causing lifelong problems by putting them into the criminal justice system at such a young age.”

Under HB 115, juveniles under 12 could only be criminally charged with serious offenses such as murder, first- or second-degree rape or using a firearm. Juveniles under 12 who otherwise would be charged with less serious offenses would be referred to the Juvenile Civil Citation Program.

House Bill 243, sponsored by Rep. Franklin Cooke and Sen. Darius Brown, would end the practice of disseminating mugshots of juveniles charged with minor crimes, including the publication of those images on publicly maintained social media pages or websites. The bill includes an exception for situations where a juvenile is charged with a violent felony and the release of their photograph is necessary to protect the public’s safety.

“Releasing the mugshots of children and teens before they’ve ever had their case heard in court can have devastating consequences for young people well into adulthood,” said Sen. Brown, D-Wilmington. “Children deserve a chance to make amends before being branded online as a criminal for the rest of their lives.”

Last year, Governor Carney issued an executive order prohibiting executive branch law enforcement agencies, including the Delaware State Police and Capitol Police, from releasing juvenile mugshots, but there is no universal policy among Delaware’s 40-plus police agencies regarding publication of mugshots of minors.

“Information that is posted on the internet lives on forever and can follow a person around for years,” said Rep. Cooke, D-New Castle North. “Worse, if charges are dropped, the mugshot of that juvenile lives on online, and the kid is associated with a crime they didn’t commit. I’m grateful to the support of my colleagues in passing this bill quickly to prevent these unnecessary side effects and end this hurtful practice.”

House Bill 241, sponsored by Rep. Debra Heffernan and Sen. Trey Paradee, would give police officers greater discretion when it comes to cases involving underage possession of alcohol and marijuana. 

Legislation passed in the 150th General Assembly made underage possession of those substances a civil offense punishable by a fine in most cases. Under HB 241, officers would be allowed to refer a minor to the Juvenile Civil Citation Program in place of assessing a monetary civil penalty.

“HB 241 restores a previous law enforcement tool that holds kids accountable for their actions, through the option of referring them to the Delaware Juvenile Civil Citation program – a way that can actually help kids get back on the right path and remove financial barriers,” said Rep. Heffernan, D-Brandywine Hundred Caucus. “Our goal is to help kids who have gotten involved in alcohol and marijuana the best we can, not set them up for failure. This bill will do just that.”

“Some teens might learn a valuable lesson from simply having to pay a fine,” said Sen. Paradee, D-Dover. “But for many others, a better approach might be the kind of hands-on intervention available through the Juvenile Civil Citation Program, which requires a risk assessment, community service and a community impact statement, among other measures. Every child is different, and this bill will further move us away from a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile justice.”