|Broad Drug Reform Measure Passes House - Monday, March 21, 2011|
|A bill that seeks to significantly change the way drug crimes are enforced and prosecuted in the First State has cleared the State House of Representatives.
Lead sponsor of the bipartisan measure, State Rep. Melanie George (D-Bear/Newark), called the bill a comprehensive revision of the state's drug crimes statutes.
Years in the making, the proposal is the result of deliberations by attorneys; state and local police; the State Attorney General's office; the Office of the Public Defender; and the criminal justice reform group, Stand Up for What's Right and Just (SURJ).
One change contained in House Bill 19 would downgrade simple drug possession charges to misdemeanor status. Supporters say the intent is to prevent people committing relatively minor infractions from losing their jobs and potentially interrupting child support payments and other obligations.
In discussing nearly identical legislation last year, Rep. George said the changes are intended to refocus the state's battle against illicit drugs. "We're taking the worst of the offenders, the violent ones, and giving them tougher sentences, longer sentences, more minimum mandatory sentences. ... This represents a wonderful compromise," she said.
State Rep. Lincoln Willis (R-Clayton) was not happy with all aspects of that compromise, noting that the bill seeks to repeal an existing law in which those found guilty of drug crimes within 300 feet of a church could face enhanced penalties.
"I think it's important to hold churches in high regard, not only because of what they do, but because they educate our children throughout the week," Rep. Willis said. He added that maintaining the zone would give prosecutors an additional tool to use in the plea-bargaining process.
Rep. Willis successfully sponsored an amendment preserving the exclusionary zone around churches, synagogues and other places of worship, adding it to the bill on a close vote of 21 to 17.
The bill still calls for reducing a similar enhanced penalty zone around schools from 1,000 feet to 300 feet. The bill's authors note that while this law is frequently used "it is poorly constructed to enhance the protection of children" and does not act as a deterrent to drug crime. They also say that signs indicating a 'drug free school zone' are usually posted on school property and not around the perimeter of the zone, so there is "no actual notice being given to drug dealers that might cause them to be less likely to deal near a school." In 2008, the crime of "possession of controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school" was charged in 458 cases, and was the lead charge in 68 of them.
The amended bill passed on a vote of 39 to 1, with State Rep. John Atkins (D-Millsboro) casting the sole dissenting vote.
The bill moves onto the Senate for consideration where it faces an uncertain future. The House passed a comparable measure last June (House Bill 443) but it died awaiting action in the Senate Executive Committee.
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