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Legislature passes first leg of constitutional amendment to allow broader detention without bail

Delaware's state capitol
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
Delaware's state capitol building.

State lawmakers vote to amend the state constitution to permit detention without bail for an expanded, but still undefined, list of alleged crimes.

State Sen. Brian Townsend’s proposal is part of a two-pronged plan to overhaul Delaware’s bail system; the second prong would involve scaling back the use of bail to keep people in detention for non-violent offenses.

Supporters of the proposed amendment call it a step towards a justice-oriented overhaul of Delaware’s bail system. House sponsor State Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha (D- Wilmington) argues the current system – in which only those detained for capital crimes can be held without bail – allows dangerous people to pay their way out of pretrial detention.

“Currently, within our state, an individual can commit a crime and bail is set," he said. "If the individual has the financial means, they can be released. Individuals who do not have the financial means will be detained.”

But this amendment to render an undefined group of defendants ineligible for bail drew a sharp rebuke from state Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover), who called it a usurpation of a fundamental underpinning of the country’s justice system.

“The right to be determined innocent until proven guilty is the absolute cornerstone and central aim of the entire criminal justice system," he said. "We cannot hold people in jail on the assumption they have committed a crime without a conviction. It is un-American.”

Lynn also noted the legislature has not established a list of alleged crimes that would make a person ineligible for bail – a gap he says opens an opportunity to deprive fundamental rights from a broad range of defendants.

The bill splintered the Democratic caucus, with most progressive lawmakers joining Lynn and GOP state Rep. Jeff Spiegelman in opposition.

Earlier on Thursday, lawmakers also passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Lynn that scales back punishments for those who can’t afford to pay court fines, including by restoring the drivers' licenses of Delawareans who lost them because they could not pay their court debts and allowing judges to waive any fine at any time. The bill also eliminates some fines outright, including the so-called "public defender fee," which Delaware's Office of Defense Services says does not, in fact, pay for public defenders' services.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.