Delaware last week joined the growing list of states that have begun to trim sentences for drug offenses. On June 26, the Delaware Senate passed House Bill 210, which will reduce mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine sales and increase the amount of weight required to sustain a trafficking charge. The Delaware House had earlier passed the bill, and the Dover News-Journal reported that Gov. Ruth Ann Minner has said she will sign the bill.
The move came as legislators confronted an empty treasury and a ravenous prison budget, which had jumped from $66 million in 1990 to $179 million in 2002 as the state struggled to pay for the results of its resort to tougher drug laws and mandatory minimum sentencing schemes. Since 1990, Delaware's prison population has increased by more than 75%, driven precisely by that drug war legislation. And while the state spent an additional $186 million for new prison construction the last five years, the Department of Corrections had warned it would soon have to pay for more if current sentencing trends continued.
The successful legislation was negotiated among the state Attorney General's office, the Sentencing Accountability Commission, and Stand Up for What's Right and Just, a citizen group led by former Republican Gov. Russell Peterson (http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/222/delawarestatehouse.shtml). And the bill itself reflects those competing agendas. It increases sentences for some violent crimes and some violent crimes committed by juveniles at the same time it reduces some drug sentences. Under the bill, the mandatory minimum sentence for cocaine trafficking will drop from three years to two, and the amount of cocaine needed to trigger a trafficking charge is doubled, from five grams to ten. It also includes a provision allowing judges to sentence drug offenders to spend the last six months of their sentences at low-security drug treatment facilities within the Department of Corrections.