Delaware Public Media

COMMENTARY: An evolutionary step in Delawares drug laws

Jun 26, 2010

The manner in which our laws in Delaware have treated those convicted of crimes against the state and public have progressed from uncaring and punitive to an increasing understanding there is merit in encouraging redemptive changes within the individual who commits a crime. Thus it becomes suitable for the judicial system that punishes to be the instrument of government that also can work toward rehabilitation of the offender.

In the 1960s a small group of like-minded civic leaders undertook to change the way in which offenders could be viewed. To work for changes in our penal system, the group formed the Three-S Citizens Campaign—“Salvage People, Shrink the Crime Rate, Save Dollars.” The committee’s research revealed that 80 percent of those offenders in jail or prison were destined to return to their former habits and eventual further confinement.

It took three years to bring about needed changes in how our judicial and penal systems dealt with offenders. The effort rallied about 6,000 Delawareans to the campaign. The details of that epic struggle are outlined in a chapter of my book Rebel With a Conscience.

Now, through the efforts of a small but diverse group of concerned activists, legislators, and leaders of our criminal justice system, Delaware proposes to take a further step in the evolution of our laws governing the treatment of offenders. House Bill 443 represents a significant recalibration of sentencing laws for drug offenses.

Attorney General Beau Biden’s office has taken a leading role in modernizing the sentencing guidelines, along with dedicated reform advocates who have labored for at least a decade on this issue.

The fact that such an array of interests came together to draft this legislation attests to the need for reform. The old sentencing rules, many enacted during the toughening of penal codes nationwide in the 1980s, give little latitude to judges in drug cases. The laws also have been an anathema to the law enforcement community, which seeks to focus its limited resources on the most dangerous offenders, and to offender advocates who want a more sensible, rehabilitation-oriented approach to sentencing.

We are beginning to understand that the drug user’s problems are, unavoidably, society’s problems. If we fail to provide basic human tools for upward mobility and reward those who are willing to improve their conditions, then an alarming number of those convicted of drug-related crimes are destined to return to their dead-end lives. Society will continue to accrue the human and financial costs of this failure.

On the other hand, Delawareans should consider the enormous benefits that will accrue to the general citizenry if our judges have the freedom to formulate sentences that include providing the offender with ways to develop employment, social, educational, and personal relationship skills to help attain the promise of a good life. Our sentencing rules should focus not just on how long to incarcerate the individual, but on what can be accomplished for the betterment of the offender.

Every offender who gains improved reading, writing, and arithmetic skills as well social skills and employable skills becomes a contributing member of society, and a tax payer rather than a tax cost. Thus a life has been salvaged.

Delawareans must be willing to accept that for many offenders this type of assistance is not a second chance. It is a first chance. Today, many Delaware families of all races, creeds, and financial circumstances are entangled in the woeful web of difficulties that lead them into a life of drug crime, from peer pressure, low self-esteem, broken families, and desperation to the equivalent of indentured servitude as drug dealers recruit young men and women to sell illicit drugs.

During the current economic downturn, however, providing the professional staff necessary to implement an enlightened and comprehensive approach to self-improvement is beyond our state’s budgetary capability. Part of the solution is calling on our citizens, businesses, civic organizations, and spiritual leaders to offer their expertise in teaching and mentoring.

I believe the good citizens of Delaware are up to this challenge. Change will not come quickly or easily. But with dedication and determination we can improve the lives of hundreds or even thousands of those who languish in the prison of drug use. And in so doing we improve the quality of life for everyone in Delaware.

I commend the members of the General Assembly for pressing forward with this cooperative effort, and urge passage of H.B. 443. The longest journey begins with the first step. They are taking the first step, and it is my fondest hope they will not consider the journey completed.

The Honorable Russell W. Peterson was Governor of Delaware from 1969 to 1973.