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ACLU-led coalition wants General Assembly to address state's prison population

Nicholas M Ciolino
Delaware Public Media

The ACLU Delaware is pressing lawmakers to adopt legislation meant to reduce the state’s prison population.

The ACLU is spearheading what they call the Coalition for Smart Justice—a multi-agency collaborative with the expressed goal of reducing Delaware’s prison population by 50%.

The group is working to push through legislation this session to address issues like Delaware’s expungement statute, drug policy and sentencing laws.

ACLU Delaware Executive Director Kathleen MacRae says she hopes lawmakers will also address systemic racism in the criminal justice system. She uses a location enhancement statute as an example.

“If someone is arrested for a drug crime within 500 feet of a school or a church, they can get a longer sentence just because of the location of the place they are arrested,” said MacRae. “In the city of Wilmington, there is no place in the city that is not within 500 feet of a school or a church.”

Ashley Biden is the Executive Director of the Delaware Center for Justice. She says her group is already trying to push for legislation that would eliminate arrest warrants for people who don’t pay fines.

“The collateral consequences are pretty devastating,” said Biden. “We have individuals who are victims of a crime but they are not reporting the crime for fear of being arrested. We have individuals who are not getting medical care for fear of being arrested.”

MacRae says the Coalition for Smart Justice is encouraging bipartisan legislation to reform the First State’s criminal justice system.

“We want to talk to everybody, but we especially want to talk to Republicans, because Republicans are leading this effort throughout the country and we feel they are a natural ally,” said MacRae.

MacRae argues several other states have already addressed many of these issues by passing similar legislation in recent years and Delaware needs to catch up.

The ACLU says Delaware’s incarceration rate is higher than the national average and the average sentence here is longer.

It also notes that while African Americans make up 23% of the state’s overall population, that group accounts for 60% of its prison population.

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