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Sen. Coons talks criminal justice reform bill with Delawareans

Sen. Chris Coons held a roundtable in Wilmington Friday focused on a criminal justice reform bill that could see a vote in the Senate.

Coons met with state and local law enforcement officials, advocates, ex-felons, academics, faith leaders and incoming state officials.

The “Revised First Step Act of 2018” includes measures that aim to reduce federal recidivism, prepare inmates for successful return to society and reform federal criminal sentencing.

Coons says the bill is ready for action on the floor in the next week or two.

“It’s supported by President Trump and the administration. It’s supported by senior Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. But there are those that oppose it in the Senate,” said Coons. “I have not heard criticism of this bill here in the state of Delaware.

Federal public defender Edson Bostic appreciates the bill’s sentencing reform, but hopes a future bill will go a step farther.

“The mandatory drug sentences that result from prior felony drug convictions ... We have individuals who as 21-year-olds may have had two minor drug offenses, felony convictions, and were subjected to life,” he said. “There’s no retroactivity with respect to that section of the bill.”

Bostic noted that Coons pushed for inclusion of this element in the bill.

Coons emphasized this legislation is simply a “first step.”

“We talked about a very wide range of things,” said Coons of Friday’s roundtable.“From mental health problems and drug addiction and drug treatment problems, to recidivism— folks who are released  from prison being re-arrested because they’re unable to find their way into meaningful employment or safe housing, or to change the behavior that put them in prison in the first place."

State Attorney General-elect Kathy Jennings sat on the roundtable. She called for reform regarding cash bail, mandatory minimum sentences and charge “stacking” at the state and federal levels.

State and local law enforcement officials also addressed the need for change at the “front end” of the criminal justice system.

“Zero tolerance doesn’t work,” said Wilmington Police Department Inspector Cecelia Ashe. She also called for more community policing.

New Castle County Police Chief Col. Vaughn Bond Jr. talked about fighting racial bias in policing and better equipping police forces to deal with individuals with mental illness.

Coons says he is proud to co-sponsor the “revised” version of the bill— and notes that there is more work to be done in future legislation.

“Some greater prohibitions on requesting criminal history on the first step of a job application process rather than before hiring, that didn’t make it into the bill. There were some reductions in the use of solitary confinement and shackling for juveniles that I support. I think we could have gone farther in that direction, but I think we had to strike an appropriate balance,” said Coons.

“I think in the end it’s important that it be broad and bipartisan and strongly supported and get passed than that it be perfect,” he said. “That’s why it’s called the First Step Act.”


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.