Matthew Denn.
Matthew Denn. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

With the backing of the Delaware Department of Justice, state lawmakers have rolled out legislation to streamline drug laws and scrap harsher punishments that tend to disproportionately target residents of larger cities.

Introduced Thursday, SB 34 aims to simplify the calculus used to impose drug penalties by reducing the number of weight classes and aggravating factors currently considered under Delaware’s drug code. Among the proposed changes are measures that would eliminate proximity to parks and places of worship as factors that expose defendants to stiffer sentences.

Other provisions of the 18-page bill, which has sponsors from both major parties, would provide established statutory guidance for weighing and sampling controlled substances in criminal trials and establish heightened mandatory sentences for the most serious repeat drug dealers, a gap that Attorney General Matt Denn said grew out of the passage of last year’s habitual offender law.

Denn, who has declined to participate in a top-down overhaul to Delaware’s criminal code, announced the targeted reforms Thursday in a press release. The measures, he said, would make Delaware’s drug laws easier to apply and eliminate disparities in sentencing between rural and urban areas.

“Prosecutors and law enforcement officers have been saying for some time that a more straightforward, coherent criminal drug code was needed in order to ensure fair and proportional sentences,” Denn said in the statement. “We are grateful for the advice and participation of the law enforcement community in crafting these changes.”

Denn first floated the idea of eliminating “geographic” aggravators during an address at the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute back in December.

Currently, state law allows for mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes that occur within 1,000 feet of a park or place of worship. But those facilities tend to be more consolidated in cities than they are in suburban or rural settings, exposing offenders in Wilmington to harsher sentences than those who commit the same crimes in less concentrated areas.

“The drug laws, as currently written, effectively create a more serious offense of ‘committing a drug crime in the city of Wilmington,’” said Senate Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry, one of 10 legislators from both parties to sign on as a sponsor. “This has a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority residents of the city. The passage of this law will eliminate that racial and economic disparity.”

This year’s legislative push follows a successful effort last session to nix Delaware’s “three-strikes” policy, a major win for Denn, who became the state’s first attorney general to support scaling back mandatory sentences for three-time offenders.

However, Denn said all drug offenses were removed from mandatory sentencing provisions in the process, leaving no heightened sentences for repeat drug offenders. SB 34, he said, would impose tougher mandatory minimums for “major drug dealers” who reoffend after being convicted of the most serious drug crimes.

Denn has also called for expanded investment in drug treatment for people who participate in diversion programs, and he has proposed closing a loophole that allows individuals with a juvenile felony adjudication to escape mandatory jail time if found to be in possession of a firearm.

The legislative rollout comes as a team of attorneys and judges, including Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr., are considering a total re-write of Delaware’s entire criminal code. Denn has chosen not to participate in that process, saying that it would upend 40 years of precedent and pose risks to public safety.

A full draft of that plan is expected by the end of the summer, with public hearings to follow.