After emotional debate, bill defining bail for Class A felonies heads to Carney

Charles Megginson Government, Headlines

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Alleged offenders of certain violent crimes could soon face mandatory minimum bail requirements under a bill passed by the House of Representatives Thursday.

Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 7 is aimed at reducing violent crime in two of Delaware’s largest and most dangerous cities, Wilmington and Dover, by eliminating the ability of judges to grant suspected offenders low- or no cash bail while they await trial.

Offenses that would require the imposition of cash bail under this law include class A felonies, gun offenses, domestic violence offenses, rape, sexual abuse of children, and reoffending while out on bond.

Supporters of SB 7 believe this legislation will end the “revolving door” of suspected offenders who commit additional crimes while awaiting trial, partly by providing judges with bail guidelines that do not exist now.

Opponents expressed outrage that legislation increasing the application of cash bail would be introduced at a time when some representatives have fought to eliminate the practice altogether in Delaware.

Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, said that this bill would lead to “a new Jim Crow.”

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, D-Wilmington, who is Black, disagreed with Kowalko’s assessment.

“Everyday we have Wilmington police officers doing their best, making gun arrests, only to have these individuals turned right back around into our communities” said Chukwuocha.

Chukwuocha argued that SB 7 “will address the small group of individuals who are wreaking havoc on [Wilmington] — individuals who were arrested and let right back onto the street.”

In tears, Chukwuocha implored his colleagues to think of “that 14 year old boy who will never have an opportunity to drive a car – never have his first job – riding a bike in between two schools in the middle of the day, shot in the park I grew up in.”

Chukwuocha was referring to Christopher Smith, who was shot and killed on Tuesday in Wilmington’s Harlan Park neighborhood. Smith was the twelfth young person to be shot this month in Wilmington, including a 12-year-old and 16-year-old shot while playing in a city park just two weeks ago.

Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, D-Wilmington, thanked Chukwuocha for “sharing what we endure on a daily basis.”

Dorsey Walker, also Black, noted that Keith Gibson, who stands accused of three Wilmington-area murders and who is suspected of three additional slayings, lived in her district.

“He stood outside of places where I go on a regular basis. He allegedly killed one of my constituents who did not bother a soul,” said Dorsey Walker. She said she would not have supported SB 7 just two weeks ago, but after learning that “this killer” walked around her district, had a change of heart.

“To know that he committed murder, and he got out, and he was allowed to walk the streets freely – that’s a problem for me.”

Dorsey Walker concluded by saying that “our law-enforcement needs help, and this bill allows us to give them the help that they need.”

The bill’s Senate sponsor, Senator Spiros Mantzavinos, D-Elsmere, acknowledged his colleagues’ objections in the bill’s synopsis.

Mantzavinos writes, “While the intention of the bail reform movement is to move toward a system of preventative detention that is not cash based, until a constitutional amendment is enacted to allow for that, this bill seeks to ensure dangerous offenders are given the appropriate bail level.”

Senator Sean Lynn, D-Dover, issued an impassioned plea in opposition the bill, which he characterized as “regressive.”

“The sacrosanct cornerstone of the American justice system is that those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty – yet despite that fact, because of bills like this, three out of five people in US jails today have not been convicted of a crime.”

Lynn argued that defendants’ inability to pay cash bail has led to a growth in pretrial detentions, specifically within low-income communities and communities of color.

While testifying as an expert witness, Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Delaware Office of Defense Services, posited that stricter bail requirements impose unduly economic and social effects on the accused.

“Individuals who are incarcerated, even for one to two days, let alone one year, could lose their job, their housing, their ability to pay their bills, their ability to help participate in their own defense — so there are severe consequences for someone who is incarcerated during the pretrial period,” said Minutola.

Lynn also called Chief Magistrate Allen Davis of the Delaware Justice of the Peace Court to testify as an expert witness on the implications of SB 7.

However, Lynn was admonished by House Speaker Pete Schwartzkoff, D-Rehoboth, to “be very careful what [he asks] Judge Davis while legislation was pending” claiming that Lynn was putting Davis in a “really tough spot” as a judge who is tasked with interpreting the law.

With no objection and little fanfare, a House Amendment was introduced which stipulated that during the pretrial phase, courts must require defendants to relinquish, but not forfeit, any firearms in their possession.

Ultimately, 32 representatives voted for the legislation, eight voted no and one was absent.

After its passage, the bill was quickly sent back to the Senate for approval of the bill as amended by the House.

SS 1 for SB 7  passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and will now head to the governor, who is expected to sign it into law.

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