When Governor Markell gave his State of the State address back in January, he outlined specific action plans for tapping into the underutilized potential of Delawareans. He did not just mean star high school students with no cultural programming for higher education or lack of financial means of gaining access to college. He also meant the potential of our incarcerated Delawareans. The governor pointed out that our jail population is well above the national average. Achieving such a statistic begs the question of what can be done to lower our inmate population. As four key solutions were outlined by the governor and recently passed into law this month, it’s possible that lowering this statistic may not be as hard as anyone thought. At the very least, the governor has made a practical start.
For example, what is the point of forbidding every person with a drug conviction from having a driver’s license? While illegal substance use and the operation of an automobile are an obvious recipe for disaster, anyone convicted of a drug crime previously lost his or her driver’s license privileges, regardless of whether the conviction involved an automobile. Now, thanks to Senate Bill 217 those convicted of drug crimes without any involvement of an automobile will not lose their driving privileges; a change the governor hopes fosters the ability to gain and maintain employment for individuals who have been through the legal system for drug crimes and are now trying to get back on their feet.
In another move to break down hurdles to gainful employment for individuals who have had trouble with the law, House Bill 264  permits the Delaware Department of Correction discretion to hire individuals with felony convictions on a short-term basis. In a similar vein, House Bill 167  forbids public employers from inquiring about criminal records on initial employment applications. The hope is that by obtaining employment, individuals with criminal records can stay out of the legal system and move on to lives of productivity and fulfillment. The State’s incarceration rate would also benefit.
Finally, and perhaps most dramatically, the governor has prompted Delaware to sync up with the rest of the country in permitting judges to order concurrent sentences for multiple convictions, rather than being required to impose consecutive terms of imprisonment. This change, ushered in by House Bill 312 , could make the most significant impact on Delaware’s incarceration rates. By removing a draconian mandate that blots out judicial discretion and judgment, Delaware has made a move toward achieving prison sentences that are tailored to individuals and their crimes rather than based on an inflexible mechanical formula.
These changes to the Delaware legal landscape have been touted by the governor as moves to tap the potential of every Delawerean and reduce our State’s high incarceration rate. They also place discretion into the hands of our judiciary in handing down sentences, and remove barriers to individuals to obtaining gainful employment after a misstep. Whether these initiatives impact Delaware’s high incarceration rate remains to be seen. Regardless of whether these legal alterations usher in favorable statistics, correcting mandates that unfairly punish or handicap individuals who have been or will become involved in the legal system is a move in the right direction for Delaware.