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Delaware AG Jennings tells prosecutors to seek lesser prison sentences for some crimes, Delaware News Journal (Feb. 19, 2019)

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AG Jennings tells prosecutors to seek lesser prison sentences for some crimes

Xerxes Wilson, Delaware News Journal Published 12:22 p.m. ET Feb. 18, 2019 | Updated 5:53 p.m. ET Feb. 19, 2019

Consider alternatives to prison when fashioning plea agreements. Avoid recommending jail time for those who violate technical aspects of their probation. For crimes with a suggested sentence of less than a year, ask for probation. Support expungements for those previously convicted of marijuana possession or other acts that are no longer crimes.

These are a few of the new marching orders for prosecutors in the Delaware Department of Justice, codified in a memo unveiled Monday by Attorney General Kathy Jennings. The memo sets out "presumptive guidelines" for the 200 or so prosecutors pursuing criminal cases in Delaware.

"Many of these steps codify the already excellent work that prosecutors do each and every day. Others represent a departure from the past," Jennings said. "All of these steps are just, necessary and true to our highest values."

The goal of the seven-page memo is to reduce the impact on non-violent and first-time offenders more in need of rehabilitation and "second chances" in order to focus more on the criminals driving a "significant proportion of serious and violent crime," the document states.

Kathy Jennings talks to an attendee after a forum of candidates during her campaign for Attorney General last year.

Kathy Jennings talks to an attendee after a forum of candidates during her campaign for Attorney General last year. (Photo11: William Bretzger, The News Journal)

Jennings noted "overabundant and redundant" minimum mandatory sentences have disproportionally impacted the poor and "traditionally underrepresented" and often lead to them spending a long time in jail or re-offending once released.

The memo, posted in full at the bottom of this story, likens the changes to adaptation and said it is not condemnation of past prosecutors or all their "ideologies and philosophies."

"For too many years, Delaware’s criminal prosecution system has focused on tough charging practices and long prison terms," said Kathleen MacRae, ACLU of Delaware's executive director.

McRae said the changes are a step toward making the system more "fair and just."

Discouragement of so-called charge stacking is an important change she said. In some cases, a person may be charged with multiple crimes that carry a minimum mandatory sentence for a single bad act.

Prosecutors are then able to leverage the potential sentence for those multiple crimes to pressure the defendant to take a plea deal, she said. The memo discourages these practices and instructs prosecutors to not charge for multiple crimes when one can account for the circumstances of the act.

"True justice requires charges to match the seriousness of the crime," McRae said.

 

Delaware Center for Justice Policy Director Katherine Parker said the memo's instruction not to seek prison time or the revocation of driving privileges for those who can't pay civil fines will have an impact on the most vulnerable.

"This type of leadership reflects a profound understanding of the impact that these practices have on the most vulnerable in our community," Parker said.

Jennings became the top official at Delaware's Department of Justice in January. She was elected following a rare Democratic primary that featured four candidates largely campaigning with a similar pledge to jail fewer people and more fairly administer justice.

Those ideas are part of a rethinking on both the political left and right of the efficiency and effectiveness of prison time and what justice looks like.

Prosecutors are an important cog in the justice machine. They decide which cases to pursue and which charges would be most fair to pursue in those cases. They administer plea deals, interact with witnesses to crimes and recommend a sentence when a conviction is secured.

The outcome of these decisions bears on how many people are jailed and for how long, what tools they have available to enjoy a productive life and more generally how the public perceives the fairness of the justice system.

The memo is the first step in Jennings publicizing changes she wants to make as the state's top prosecutor. She is expected to announce a list of legislative reforms she plans to lobby for in Dover in the coming months.

The memo touches on changes to plea agreements, charging, sentence recommendations, probation, prosecution of children and the DOJ's role administering expungements and commutations.

Here are a few takeaways:

Regarding pretrial decisions:

The memo also seeks to lower barriers for criminals with drug problems and mental illnesses to get meaningful rehabilitation. It instructs prosecutors to divert "low-level" offenders in these categories away from probation and jail and toward treatment programs.

Prosecutors are also to consider "alternatives to prison" like house arrest when crafting plea deals, the memo states.

It encourages police to only issue civil fines for marijuana possession and ends the practice of adding a charge for misdemeanor possession of marijuana when someone banned from possessing a gun is found with a firearm and pot. Now, they will only be hit with the firearm charge, the memo states.

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Regarding bail, the DOJ will request those charged with misdemeanors be released without having to pay bail unless they are charged with crimes involving violence, child or domestic victims.

Prosecution of children accused of crimes is particularly relevant for Wilmington, where teens have been arrested and jailed on gang participation charges as well as subsequent violations like no-contact orders with their codefendants and friends.

Jennings' memo states that adult charges will not be pursued for children unless approved by the state prosecutor. In these cases, deputies will only seek pre-trial jail when there are no safer alternatives. The office will also expand the use of civil citations, which are fines.

Regarding sentencing and probation:

For crimes that do not involve a minimum mandatory sentence, judges have discretion over how much jail or probation a defendant gets.

Prosecutors, however, make a recommendation. Jennings' memo states that approval from the state prosecutor is required to seek a prison sentence above 20 years. For crimes where the recommended sentence is under one year, deputies should seek probation or house arrest, the memo states.

Delaware recently reformed its habitual offender law, also known as the three strikes law, to allow some who were doing life sentences for drug crimes and violent felonies a second chance.

The administration of the current habitual offender law still creates controversy. Jennings' memo states that prosecutors are to get approval before moving to declare a defendant a habitual offender.

State Prosecutor A.J. Roop said the purpose is to have a conversation about the specific individual and case to see if such tactics are just.

Prosecutors will craft sentence recommendations that consider both the victims need for justice and the defendants need for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, the memo states.

Probation recommendations should also be limited to one year, unless the crime involved is a violent felony or "top-tier" drug charge.

Likewise, prosecutors are to avoid prison sentences for technical parole violations like a missed curfew. As well, prosecutors are not to recommend zero-tolerance probation conditions for drug and alcohol addiction.

Deputies will work against the issuance of arrest warrants or revocation of a person's drivers license when they are without means and fail to pay a fine -- that includes all defendants represented by a public defender.

Contact Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or xwilson@delawareonline.com. Follow @Ber_Xerxes on Twitter.

Read the full memo here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

KATHLEEN JENNINGS

ATTORNEY GENERAL


DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

820 NORTH FRENCH STREET WILMINGTON, DELAWARE 19801


CIVIL DIVISION (302) 577-8400

CRIMINAL DIVISION (302) 577-8500

FRAUD DIVISION (302) 577-8600

FAX (302) 577-2610

 

 

 

 

MEMO

 

To: Deputy Attorneys General and Staff From: Attorney General Kathleen Jennings

Re: Fairness and Equality in the Criminal Justice System: Internal Policies Date: February 15, 2019

 

The Delaware Department of Justice (DOJ) remains committed to making the criminal justice system fair, equal, and accessible to every person regardless of race, income or ZIP code. Prosecutors have a unique and powerful role in how the system operates. Unlike any other attorneys, we are ethically bound to consider and protect the rights and needs of all Delawareans—victims, the public, and the accused. Our overarching responsibility is to do justice; that is, to do the right thing in every action we take. Prosecutors have the power to charge or not to charge; to choose which charges to bring; to offer a plea or not, and to recommend a sentence. These decisions substantially impact peoples’ lives, their sense of justice, their liberty, their livelihood, and their families, in addition to the community’s fundamental faith in the system. These are decisions you make every day, often with limited resources, and they are decisions I made throughout my career as a Deputy.

 

Many of you, and the public, are frustrated by aspects of the criminal justice system. Overabundant and redundant minimum mandatory sentences, laws that disproportionately impact traditionally underrepresented, economically challenged people, and the collateral consequences of criminal records have contributed to the high rates of incarceration and recidivism that lead to us seeing many of the same defendants over and over again. We cannot control what other agencies or stakeholders do, but we can change our practices and policies to reverse this trend and increase fairness and proportionality in the system, while at the same time improving public safety and restoring community trust.

 

Make no mistake: I know you work tirelessly, night and day, to protect us and to do justice. This change in direction and focus is not a condemnation of all

 

ideologies and philosophies of the past, or the fine public servants who were dedicated to those ideals. Indeed, I’ve spent the majority of my career here. Rather, this is a reaction to the realities of the present. We must adapt. The problematic issues are systemic and not attributable to the outstanding individuals who work here, but we are uniquely positioned to help.

 

These changes are designed to call more attention and resources to be devoted to the offenders who are driving a significant proportion of serious and violent crime, while reducing the impact on low-level, non-violent or first time- offenders for whom rehabilitation and second chances should be the goal.

 

DOJ Internal Measures

 

An internal working group of experienced prosecutors from all three counties examined and recommended ways to change our practices while continuing to keep Delawareans safe. I am grateful for their hard work, over and above their caseload. I have considered and incorporated several recommendations. Effective immediately, the Department of Justice and its Deputies and staff will observe the following presumptive guidelines in criminal cases:

 

1.           Charging.

 

For all cases charged from this day forward:

 

a)     We will adopt an office-wide presumption not to charge multiple minimum mandatory crimes when one crime accounts for the facts and circumstances of an event. Deputies will focus on limiting the number of charges in an indictment to those that most accurately reflect the misconduct and are most provable.

 

b)    Deputies will only move to declare a defendant a habitual offender with State Prosecutor approval. We should not file a habitual offender petition unless we are seeking to go above a statutory maximum at sentencing out of concern for public safety.

 

c)     Addiction and mental illness drive a substantial number of crimes in Delaware. We must support alternatives to criminalizing addiction and mental illness by diverting people who commit low-level crimes to evidence-based treatment programs and away from the system altogether.

 

d)    We must never impose a zero-tolerance condition upon a person seeking drug, alcohol or mental health treatment, because the path to rehabilitation is never linear. Where there is sufficient evidence to charge, Deputies will utilize discretion to divert more people from the criminal justice system, when it is safe to do so, based upon their need for addiction services and/or mental health treatment. Absent extraordinary circumstances, Deputies should not require an admission of guilt as a prerequisite to entry into court- run diversion programs.1

 

e)     We will continue to encourage alternatives to prosecution for misdemeanor possession of marijuana or paraphernalia charges related to marijuana possession. We will encourage police agencies to expand the use of civil citations of marijuana possession in lieu of criminal arrest.

 

f)      Unless approved by the State Prosecutor, we will not prosecute a person for simultaneously possessing a legally owned firearm and a misdemeanor amount of marijuana. Persons prohibited from owning a firearm will be charged with illegal possession of a firearm.

 

g)    We will encourage alternatives to prosecution for Prostitution. We will be cognizant of the potential for accused sex workers to be victims of sex trafficking and always make an appropriate law enforcement referral when we suspect a defendant is a victim of human trafficking. We will also refer people charged with Prostitution to specialized treatment courts designed to assist them.

 

2.           Bail.

 

Although the Courts determine the bail system, I will transmit to the judiciary our strong preferences, including the following:

 

a)     DOJ’s presumptive bail request for misdemeanors will be “release on own recognizance” (ROR) or unsecured bail, with the exception of crimes involving child victims, violence, and domestic violence.

 

b)    Deputies are encouraged to seek a reduction of bail for defendants held solely on misdemeanor offenses whose cases do not resolve during a

 

 

 
 

 

1 Where critical evidence or witnesses may become unavailable if trial is delayed, a conditional guilty plea is warranted.

 

scheduled calendar (unless the offenses involve child victims, violence, or domestic violence).

 

Further, I am sending a letter to the Courts requesting that all currently held defendants who meet the above criteria be brought to court for a review of their conditions as soon as possible.

 

3.           Pleas.

 

When fashioning plea offers and resolutions:

 

a)     Deputies will continue to take into account harm to the victim and the victim’s need for justice.

 

b)    Deputies will continue to take defendant’s rehabilitative needs and background into account and encourage defense counsel and others to provide information on those needs. This will include relying on mental health or drug treatment needs before pleading or recommending a prison sentence. I have already encouraged this with defense attorneys and will continue to do so.

 

c)     When appropriate, Deputies will consider alternatives to prison that limit collateral consequences while accounting for public safety (e.g., house arrest).

 

d)    Deputies will continue to consider whether a person can safely reside in a community-based residential program, rather than in prison.

 

e)     Deputies will avoid conditioning a plea on the timing of a motion hearing in victimless crimes unless there is an appropriate reason, such as a vulnerable victim.

 

f)      Deputies will encourage judicial discretion by leaving sentence recommendations “open” in plea agreements when appropriate.

 

4.           Sentencing.

 

a)     Authorization from the State Prosecutor is required when seeking a prison sentence above 20 years in a case other than Murder First Degree, Murder Second Degree, Manslaughter, Sex Offenses, and Child Abuse.

 

b)    In routine misdemeanor or felony cases, Deputies are encouraged to recommend sentences at the lower end of the SENTAC Guideline range, unless aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances. This policy does not apply to homicides, child abuse, violent felonies, sexual offenses, firearms offenses, or violations of the public trust.

 

c)     For Guideline sentences of 0 to 12 months, Deputies should ask for probation or home confinement, when appropriate.

 

d)    Studies show that most probation violations occur within the first year, and additional years are unnecessary with lower level offenses. Deputies will keep probation recommendations to a one-year maximum unless the conviction is for a violent felony or top-tier drug crimes.

 

e)     Over 90% of defendants sentenced to prison will reenter society, and it is critical that we recommend sentences that will increase the likelihood of successful reentry. Deputies will fashion sentencing recommendations to account for the individual circumstances of the case, including the victim’s need for justice and recompense, as well as the defendant’s needs for rehabilitation and reintegration back to society.

 

f)      Deputies will consider restorative justice processes that will help victims heal while also impressing upon the defendant the negative impact of his or her actions on the victim and society.

 

5.           Probation violations.

 

a)     Deputies will work with Delaware Probation and Parole to avoid recommending prison sentences for technical violations, such as missed curfews, etc.

 

b)    Deputies will not recommend zero-tolerance conditions of probation for people addicted to drugs or alcohol.

 

c)     Deputies will oppose the issuance of warrants, or the revocation of driving licenses, for failure of a person to pay a fine when the defendant is without the ability to pay. For example, Deputies will oppose all such warrants when the defendant is indigent and is represented by the Office of Defense Services.

 

 

6.           Children.

 

a)     Deputies will not pursue adult charges against children in Superior Court unless approved by the State Prosecutor. If a Deputy recommends prosecuting a child as an adult, the Deputy will continue to ensure that all relevant information is available, including family, educational, mental health and treatment information, as well as prior rehabilitative efforts.

 

b)    In assessing a case involving a child, Deputies will consider the effect of a child’s background and special needs, including the effect of trauma, on all disposition recommendations. With respect to bail, Deputies will only seek pretrial detention where there is no safer alternative.

 

c)     Deputies will utilize extended Family Court jurisdiction when necessary to further a child’s rehabilitative efforts and ensure public safety.

 

d)    Deputies will support expansion of the use of civil citations.

 

 

7.           Expungements, Pardons and Commutations.

 

a)     Deputies will support expungements for arrests for crimes that are now legal, as well as prior arrests for possession of marijuana and paraphernalia crimes related to marijuana possession.

 

b)    Deputies will support expungements when a nolle prosequi has been entered based upon insufficient evidence when the underlying offense is nonviolent in nature.

 

c)     Deputies will support pardon applications when a person applies in connection with a crime for which there is no violence and the crime is isolated in nature, when the applicant has demonstrated sufficient rehabilitation.

 

 

d)    Deputies will support commutation applications when the crime for which the applicant is seeking relief is nonviolent in nature.

 

 

e)     Deputies will continue to support pardons and commutations when justice and fairness require. When in doubt, Deputies should consult with the State Prosecutor, Chief Deputy, and/or the Attorney General.

 

 

8.           Other Considerations In Charging and Prosecution

 

a)     Deputies will take into account collateral consequences to undocumented victims or witnesses when deciding how to present a case.

 

b)    Deputies will continue to use eyewitness identifications consistent with statewide eyewitness identification policy.

 

c)     Consistent with the law, deputies will practice open discovery as a matter of course.

 

d)    Deputies will examine any forensic evidence to ensure that it is scientifically sound.

 

 

The Department of Justice has determined that the direction and guidelines set forth in this document are of such importance that the public ought to be made aware of them. As has been referenced repeatedly in this document, justice is not a “one size fits all” concept. Differing facts and circumstances will require different methods to achieve justice for victims and defendants. While the aforementioned policies and practices are intended to provide general direction and guidance to employees of the Department of Justice regarding the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, nothing in this document is intended to establish a rule of law or procedure enforceable by any third party.  Similarly, nothing in this document shall create any enforceable right, entitlement, or privilege to a specific outcome in any criminal or civil matter, nor shall it constitute a waiver of the immunities available to the State or State employees.