(FinalCall.com) – Delaware, one of the first states to adopt mandatory minimum sentencing in the 1980s, is reeling from huge budget deficits and rethinking its policy of locking up non-violent drug offenders.
According to budget documents, the state spends over $250 million a year to house 6,528 inmates.
“Delaware’s stringent drug laws served as a national pilot program for the nation’s war on drugs, and of course the Black and Latino communities were disproportionately impacted,” said Student Min. Robert Muhammad of the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No. 35 in Wilmington, Delaware.
According to the National Institute of Corrections, Minnesota, Tennessee, Utah and Washington were among states joining Delaware in the late 1980s in using mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders. During that time, nearly 40 percent of all inmates nationally were females, Blacks and Latinos, according to the institute.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report said bowing to public pressure for longer sentences and uniform punishment, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Encroachment Act, authorizing funding for additional state prisons and jails. In 1998, Congress authorized incentive grants to 27 states and the District of Columbia to build more facilities.
“Now the state of Delaware says it doesn’t have the money to continue locking up non-violent drug offenders,” said Mr. Muhammad during an interview with The Final Call. State legislators fired the first salvo against the expensive and draconian laws by returning sentencing discretion to judges in April. Then Aug. 9 first term Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, signed into law the Justice Reinvestment Act. The act, according to the governor’s statements at a post-signing press conference at the New Castle County Police headquarters, promotes informed decision-making in the criminal justice system and helps ensure scarce resources are focused on higher-risk offenders. The Delaware Dept. Of Corrections reported that 41 percent of the state’s inmate population is repeat offenders.
“We owe it to Delawareans to ensure that our criminal justice spending is wisely invested to have the biggest impact on public safety. If we can properly allocate that spending to focus on programming that reduces recidivism and prevents future crime, we can have a significant impact on the safety of our communities,” said Gov. Markell.
Chris Immes, chief of Research and Information Service at the National Institute of Corrections, views Delaware’s problems and correctional problems nationwide as the “big squeeze” at a hearing on Aug. 22-23 in Washington, D.C. The hearing’s focus was “Balancing Fiscal Challenges, Performance-Based Budgeting and Public Safety,” and Mr. Immes said states are facing a combination of population pressures, budget constraints and political polarization.
At the same hearing, Adam Gelb of the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project noted opinion polls show voters strongly support reducing prison time for low-risk, non-violent offenders.
Brian Sigritz, director of State Fiscal Services of the National Association of State Budget Officers, told attendees at the hearing that as of mid-2012, eight states cut corrections’ budgets.
Observers say the key to the success of initiatives like Delaware’s Reinvestment Act are education and job creation.
According to the Census Bureau, Delaware’s population is just over 900,000 people, with Whites making up 71.7 percent of the population, Blacks are 21.9 percent and Latinos at 8.4 percent of state residents. The median household income is $57,589, with 11 percent below the poverty level. Unemployment for the state as of July was 6.8 percent. But, in cities such as Dover and Wilmington, where the Black populations are over 40 percent, the Black male unemployment rates are over 14 percent and 12 percent for Black females.
“There are no jobs; this is a white collar state,” Student Minister Muhammad said. According to Rev. Ty Johnson, chairman of the Interdenominational Ministers Council, the weakest component of the state’s re-entry programming is job creation.
The Delaware Center for Justice reported 57,000 children in the state have parents who lack full-time year round employment. The Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Md., found 5,000 children in Delaware lived in homes where no parent worked over the past year.
“We know the state isn’t really going to give us the necessary funds, so it will be up to the faith-based community to provide the means,” Rev. Johnson told The Final Call. He said the council had devised a five-point program for the 1,500 to 1,600 inmates making the re-entry journey in Delaware. The points include focusing on creating an income, providing education, providing housing, providing proper health care and justice.
Patricia Connelly, a spokesperson for the Vera Institute for Justice, with offices in New York and Washington, D.C., told The Final Call that Delaware has 60 days to complete the community programming design for the Reinvestment Act. The Vera Institute, which provided technical help to the governor in drafting the act, will be assessing the program’s impact on community agencies that deal with inmate re-entry, she said.