Posted: Oct. 16, 2015
NO MORE BUMPER-STICKER JUSTICE
By Celia Cohen
For some reason or other, the attorney general does not think the criminal justice system should be driven by slogans that can fit on bumper stickers.
Most notably, "Three Strikes and You're Out."
Nine months after taking over as the Democratic attorney general, Matt Denn is ready to get beyond the crisis mode forced upon him by the gun violence that got Wilmington named "Murder Town USA" and get into a legislative mode.
In a brisk 20 minutes of remarks, Denn took on the mindlessness that can turn the criminal justice system into a caricature of what it should be, and he argued instead for flexibility and fairness as the basis for new policies he will ask the Delaware General Assembly to approve when it returns to Dover in January for the 2016 session.
Here is some of the bumper-sticker justice he went after, as he spoke Thursday to about 120 members of the Wilmington Rotary Club at the Hotel du Pont.
Three Strikes and You're Out
This slogan is wrong to begin with. It should be "Three Strikes and You're In."
The idea is that anyone convicted of three violent felonies should automatically go behind bars for life. The problem is the criminal code can be a little quirky about what a "violent" felony is. It is not necessarily murder, rape and kidnapping, as in this case Denn outlined:
Strike One was drug possession. Strike Two was shoplifting while having pepper spray on a key chain in a pocket. Strike Three was stealing two coats and pretending to have a gun when confronted about it.
"We think we should move away from sentences based on baseball analogies," Denn said.
If You Do the Crime, You Have to Do the Time
Sometimes the legislature softens the penalty for crimes. Denn proposed it was only fair for people who went to jail when the penalty was harsher to be able to petition for their sentences to be reviewed, especially people who committed drug or property crimes that did not hurt anyone else.
Say two students who are 12 years old get into a fight, and one gets a bloody nose and the other a black eye. Under the law, the school has to turn them into the police for misdemeanor assault. Now they have records.
Denn suggested mandatory reporting ought to go into the dustbin of juvenile justice, unless the situation was truly serious. "Give parents and principals discretion to make the decision," he said.
Spoken like the father of 10-year-old twin boys.
Denn made it clear he does not like "young guns," namely, juveniles shooting juveniles.
He called it an "enormous" problem and declared himself disinclined to have prosecutors drop gun charges for under-age shooters, even though conviction means mandatory time in juvenile detention. He has gone so far as to take personal responsibility for it
"Every juvenile gun charge comes to me," Denn said. "The message has go to get out it is not OK to carry guns."
If It Doesn't Fit, You Must Acquit
Actually, Denn kind of likes this one, although not exactly the way it was intended by Johnnie Cochran, the defense attorney, talking about the glove in O.J. Simpson's murder trial.
What does not fit is there are people doing time for crimes they never committed.
"It happens. Not often, but it happens," Denn said.
He called on the legislature to authorize a new position in his office to examine claims of actual innocence by people who are incarcerated, perhaps because new evidence exonerates them or circumstances conspired to lead them to accept a plea bargain.
In those cases, justice delayed would not be justice denied. Another bumper-sticker slogan gets smashed to smithereens.