by Phillip Smith
Major drug sentencing reform is on the verge of being enacted in Delaware. The state Senate on Tuesday approved the reform bill, House Bill 19, on Tuesday. The bill has already passed the House, but must return to the House for a final vote after it was amended in the Senate. Gov. Jack Markell (D) has said he will sign the bill.
Under the bill, simple possession of small amounts of illegal drugs would be treated as a misdemeanor. Such offenses are currently felonies. The bill also does away with the current possession with intent to distribute and distribution offenses and replaces them with aggravated possession and drug dealing. Judges would exercise more discretion in sentencing, with sentences being increased if certain aggravating factors, such as proximity to a school or the involvement of juveniles, are present.
The bill also reduces the size of “drug-free zones” near schools, day care centers, or churches from 1,000 feet to 300 feet. The House version of the bill removed proximity to a church as an aggravating factor if the church does not have a school or day care center, but the Senate amended that language to include churches, synagogues, or other places of worship regardless of the presence of a day care center.
On the other hand, the bill creates a new felony offense of possessing firearms while possessing drugs. It also increases penalties for dealing prescription drugs.
Advocates of shrinking the “drug-free zones” said the 1,000-foot zone led to residents of Wilmington, the state’s largest city, being disproportionately charged with felonies. “You end up with persons charged with felonies who live in cities who commit the exact same offense as persons charged with a misdemeanor out in the county,” Chief Deputy Attorney General Charles Butler told the Senate. “That’s why we shrunk the space.”
Delaware is now just a procedural vote and a governor’s signature away from joining the ranks of states enacting serious sentencing reform in recent years.