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Legislation to help inmates reduce debt gets expanded over opposition

Delaware Public Media

Legislation helping inmates reduce their fees and fines is being amended to also help people outside of prison.

State Sen. Darius Brown’s (D-Wimington) amendment expands the reach of Senate President Pro Tem David McBride’s (Hawk's Nest) bill attempting to lower inmates debt before they reenter society.

Brown’s amendment bars courts or the Delaware Department of Transportation from suspending a defendant’s driver’s license for failing to pay a fine or fee.

The amendment was met with opposition from Senate Republicans who say it caught them off guard.

Republican State Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover South) said he was surprised by the amendment, which he thinks goes beyond the bill’s purpose of helping inmates reduce debt.

“We are expanding the scope of this bill to a question that was not quite frankly presented to us," he said. "So, I’m not going to support it.”

But Senate Majority Whip Bryan Townsend (D-Newark) said it’s part of an effort to decriminalize poverty.

“Because it very much is all within that framework of the negative role, perhaps inadvertently so, that fines and fees can play in the life of somebody trying to get back on their feet, trying to get momentum, trying to be a productive member of society,” he said.

Brown’s amendment passed along party lines, with State Sen. Cathy Cloutier (R-Heatherbrooke) and Sen. Anthony Delcollo (R-Elsmere) not voting. It wouldn't take effect until July 1, 2020.

McBride’s bill is designed to allow about 1,500 people currently incarcerated earn credit, not cash, to forgive their fines and fees to help them succeed once they’re released from prison.

The state Senate passed the measure 13-7, with Cloutier the lone Republican voting for it.

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