With Delaware prisons bulging at the seams, a battle is brewing between those who would solve the problem by building more prisons and those who would solve the problem by reducing the number of people going to prison and the amount of time they spend there. The latter group is led by an influential grassroots organization devoted to criminal justice reform, Stand Up for What's Right and Just (http://www.surj.org). The honorary chairman of SURJ is former Gov. Russell Peterson, who governed the state as a Republican from 1969 to 1973 before going on to sit on then President Nixon's Council on Environmental Quality.
Peterson is no longer a Republican -- he told DRCNet he grew disgusted by "right-wing Republican" attacks on his environmental policies -- but he retains a longstanding interest in criminal justice policy and moved to form SURJ in 2000 in response to the almost constant crisis in the Delaware prison system.
"We got ourselves in a hell of a mess over this outrageous drug law [mandatory minimum three-year sentence for possession of more than five grams of cocaine] they passed, jamming our prisons so they were super crowded, three in a cell designed for one, people sleeping on the floor in prison gyms," Peterson told DRCNet. "We've just finished a $200 million dollar prison expansion program, and we're already beyond capacity. We have to stop the state from spending any more money on new prisons. We don't need that, and we have many ways to reduce the prison population," he added.
Consultants hired by the state told officials almost two years ago that absent changes in sentencing laws, the state would have to increase its prison capacity by nearly 50% by 2010 at a cost of $200 million. More than 6,000 people are imprisoned in Delaware now, although Department of Corrections officials could not tell DRCNet how many of them were drug offenders.
SURJ is targeting mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. "Our first priority is a piece of proposed legislation that would sunset mandatory minimums two years after they were imposed," said Peterson. That bill, introduced as Senate Bill 6 last year, has an even chance of passing this year, said Peterson. "We're working hard with members of the legislature to get sufficient support to get the bill passed this session," he said. "But if not this year, I predict the bill will have a 100% chance of passage next year."
SURJ is a potent force for criminal justice reform in Delaware. The 2,000-member organization includes former governors, former judges, former heads of the state police, and a former deputy attorney general, along with 28 organizations ranging from the Boys' Club to the League of Women Voters to the American Civil Liberties Union.
"We have subcommittees working on various issues," explained Peterson. "In addition to ending mandatory minimums, which would give judges the discretion to send people someplace other than prison, we are also working on speeding up trials. We now have people detained on an average of over six months waiting for trial. We also want to reintroduce parole, which the legislature ended a few years ago."
Peterson and SURJ also have other drug policy goals. "We want to decriminalize marijuana," he said. "We want to join the rest of the world, but we still face these right-wingers who want to be 'tough on crime.' We have to arouse the people so they demand change, and I think we're beginning to turn things around," he said.
And despite his repeated remarks about right-wing Republican zealots, Peterson noted that Republicans outnumber Democrats in the SURJ membership. "It could be a Nixon goes to China kind of thing," he said. "Republicans have those law and order credentials."