Election-year consensus on easing drug penalties? How? | Delaware First Media
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Election-year consensus on easing drug penalties? How?

Jun 22, 2010

Efforts to revise drug laws can crash on the rocks of party politics and passionate views about how to deal with drug offenders. Proposals to provide alternative sentencing meet criticisms of coddling addicts or being soft on crime.

So in an election year, with political eddies around every corner, how did consensus coalesce around a bill to roll back mandatory minimum drug sentencing in Delaware?

House Bill 443 is an example of a business-not-as-usual approach, according those who helped to craft it. The unlikely allies—from prosecutors to drug-treatment advocates—describe a process that was unusually patient and collegial, even through philosophical struggles. Underlying the effort was a shared belief that Delaware’s drug laws simply had to be updated to reflect current realities. (See Drug bill: rethinking drug laws.)

“There’s a recognition out there, especially in this economy, with the recession, that government is not made of unlimited funds," said the bill’s sponsor, Representative Melanie George (D-Bear). "When it comes to the criminal justice system, there’s only so much we have, only so much money for police, so much for lawyers in the criminal justice system, only so much money for jails and prisons. . . . So from everyone’s perspective, both financially and philosophically, they were able to reach agreement.”

Proposed drug sentencing reforms in 2007 and 2009 died. “The big difference with this bill is that it is a collaborative effort,” said Joanna Champney, executive director of Stand Up for What’s Right and Just (SURJ).

“This was trying to get everybody who had an interest in it to work on it together,” said State Prosecutor Rich Andrews. “In the past, basically there wasn’t a lot of dialogue, or there wasn’t enough dialogue back and forth to get everyone on the same page.”

This time, the Attorney General’s office created the “Drug Laws Revision Committee,” an ad hoc committee bringing together prosecutors, police, the Public Defenders office, and advocacy groups like SURJ to sort out the complex issues and reach consensus.

Such a level of cooperation is unusual on criminal justice issues, Rep. George said.

"Typically, either the [Attorney General's] office/police will present us with 'tough on crime' legislation, or the Public Defender's office will present us with legislation that makes the system more fair and protective of the individual. The fact that both sides were able to come together and agree on a course forward is unique and truly took a lot of effort on their part to discuss the issues thoroughly."

Between April 2009 and March 2010, the committee met 14 times.  When all was said and done, House Bill 443 was the result.

“Philosophically, they started off in very different perspectives, and I think through a lot of dialogue they were able to reach agreement on a lot of different things that initially nobody thought they’d be able to,” said George.

It was a difficult process. Committee members acknowledge there were heated and, at times, territorial debates. George says the debates were heated enough to nearly bring the process to a halt.

“I received phone calls from different parties, whether it was the Public Defenders office, or attorneys from SURJ, or police, or the Attorney General’s office, saying, ‘Hey, we reached brick wall. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t think we can move forward.’ I encouraged everyone to keep dialoguing, keep talking, and they were able to do that,” said George.

“There were some heated discussions—the weights of drugs that might trigger an offense, things like that,” said Champney.

Employing a more informal approach helped the committee keep from getting stuck on any one issue.

“In the end, we didn’t take votes on things,” said Andrews. “We proceeded by essentially a consensus method. There were some compromises struck, and in the end everyone on the committee supports the product.”

There was also recognition from the parties at the table that there was value in staying at the table.

“It was an indication that, one, this is an important topic. Two, there was a lot of goodwill by everyone participating, that even though people came at things from different backgrounds and with different perspectives, they were willing to listen to each other and take into account the different concerns everybody had,” Andrews said.