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AG Denn, lawmakers, judiciary spar over proposed criminal code rewrite

Delaware Public Media

Attorney General Matt Denn and top law enforcement lobbyists are rebelling against a proposed overhaul to the state’s criminal code, pitting them against the state’s Chief Justice and some of the most influential lawmakers in Dover.

The Joint Finance Committee kicked off the committee two years ago, which has since been embraced by Chief Justice Leo Strine.

Its mission is to erase disproportionate, redundant, outdated or inefficient criminal statutes to help make it digestible by anyone while also creating a fair system for all.

"This could be the first state to do it right, to serve as a model for everyone else," said University of Pennsylvania professor Paul Robinson, who leads the committee.

But the Attorney General’s office has refused to participate in drafting the new code, attending only one meeting.

Denn says it would throw out 40 years of case law that’s given prosecutors certainty when taking up a case.

“We and all the state’s law enforcement agencies and all the state’s victims advocacy groups think there’s a real public safety hazard to eliminating the criminal code and starting it over from scratch, so we’re very concerned about the process,” he said.

That resistance has been met with confusion by those heading the committee, including Robinson, who contends Denn's stable of prosecutors strategically use handfuls of charges against defendants as a tactic to secure plea bargains.

"This may be why the attorney general is hesitant because he wants to keep that advantage," Robinson said.

Denn dismissed that accusation as inappropriate.

Robinson spoke for nearly an hour to member of JFC about progress on the draft, bringing one example of distilling 56 pages of current code relating to assault and robbery to six pages.

It would take "a couple of hours" for expert lawyers to sift through the existing statutes and digest them, Robinson said. "We want that desk sergeant with a copy of the criminal code on their desk they can understand."

Denn and his staff say the code already clear to those working in law enforcement.

Steve Wood, the state's longest serving prosecutor, says 40 years of case law sets clear boundaries in the courtroom that he can instinctually follow.

“We would be losing an awful lot of history and that’s always a concern because in the law, when things are new, they are problematic. The law works best when it is settled and when it is well understood by everyone,” Wood said.

A full draft plan is expected to be released in August with several public hearings to follow.

It will then be put into bill form for the General Assembly to consider in January.