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Bills overhauling Delaware's juvenile justice system head to Gov. Carney's desk

Delaware Public Media

Legislation aimed at addressing problems in Delaware’s juvenile justice system is heading to Gov. John Carney’s desk.

The three bills are a package of reforms sponsored by State Rep. J.J. Johnson (D-New Castle).

Johnson points to a 2015 study of shootings in Wilmington as a reason to change course on juvenile justice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found poverty, unemployment and childhood trauma are strong indicators of gun violence in the city.

Johnson says simply being tough on crime hasn’t worked. The state must also tackle the factors behind rising crime rates.

“I look at this legislation not as not being soft on crime, but being more understanding of what we need to do to address our community and our society as a whole,” he said.

One piece of Johnson’s package eliminates some mandatory minimum sentences for minors. Another allows Superior Court judges to move some defendants charged with having a gun while committing a felony back to Family Court. The third allows youth detained before trial to be housed in a juvenile facility.

The legislation is similar to recommendations made last year by the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Johnson says the package reflects recommendations made by the National Juvenile Defender Center last year - and is part of an effort to address socioeconomic risk factors leading kids to a life of crime.

“Looking at a totality of the circumstances, not just as I said just locking someone up and throwing away the key," he said. "It takes more. It takes us getting involved more.”

The center’s report also found children of color are given harsher sentences than white defendants.

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