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Delaware General Assembly: 2021 Recap

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Courtesy of GPA Photo Archive
The Delaware General Assembly met virtually this year and was joined by eight newly-elected Senators and Representatives.

BY
Managing News Editor

The Delaware General Assembly met virtually this year and was joined by eight newly-elected Senators and Representatives. Here are some of the highlights:

Minimum wage

Senate Bill 15, sponsored by Senator Jack Walsh, would gradually raise Delaware’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.

“As Delaware faces the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes, it is our lowest-paid workers who are being asked to put their own health at risk, so people who can afford to work from home are able to buy groceries and sleep at night knowing their most vulnerable family members are being cared for,” Walsh said. “Our essential workers have stepped up for us in heroic fashion. Now we need to step up for them by making sure they are paid a fair and livable wage.”

The Delaware Department of Labor estimates that approximately 150,000 Delawareans would be impacted by this legislation, including 35,000 workers currently earning the state minimum wage of $9.25 an hour.

Republican lawmakers introduced seven amendments to the legislation, all of which were voted down by their Democratic counterparts. Representative Bryan Shupe, the primary sponsor of an amendment that would have required studies of the effects of the wage increases, claimed the debate was uninformed and politically motivated.

“The dialogue … has not been about empirical evidence, has not been about statistics, has not been about projections and analysis,” Shupe said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I really believe that instead of having a discussion on numbers and analysis, this was more of a political agenda.”

Walsh said that he was “disappointed” with the amendments that Republican lawmakers filed.

“Senate Bill 15 was sent to the Delaware House of Representatives a full three months ago,” Walsh said in a statement released by the Delaware State Senate Majority Caucus. “It’s disappointing that only now, with just days left in this year’s legislative session, we’re seeing a flurry of filed amendments that seek to delay implementation or provide carve outs benefitting favored employers.”

The legislation would increase the minimum wage to $10.50 per hour next year, followed by a $1.25 raise in 2023, a $1.50 raise in 2024 and a $1.75 raise in 2025. 

The legislature also passed House Bill 88, sponsored by Representative Kim Williams, which would repeal the youth and training wage. Currently, Delaware employers are permitted to pay workers under 18 and anyone in their first 90 days of employment 50 cents less than the minimum wage.

“The youth and training wage discriminates against people because of their age or when they were hired. It creates a second class of workers, with some potentially earning less simply because they’re a minor, or because they’re new to the job, regardless of prior experience,” Williams said in a press release. “That’s less money for gas, bus fare, groceries or bills. This was a bad policy when it was enacted, and we’ve taken an important step toward unraveling it.”

Both bills have been sent to Governor Carney for his signature.

Juvenile justice reform

The Delaware General Assembly passed multiple pieces of legislation aimed at protecting juveniles in the criminal justice system. House Bill 115, sponsored by Representative Nnamdi Chukwuocha, would end the prosecution of children under 12, except for the most serious charges.

“Adolescents’ brains aren’t fully developed until they’re in their mid-20s, so charging 10-year-olds with crimes only damages the child’s future. Too many lives have been sent down a dark path because of a youthful mistake,” Chukwuocha said. “There are better ways to hold young children accountable for minor incidents without causing lifelong problems by putting them into the criminal justice system at such a young age.”

House Bill 243, sponsored by Representative Franklin Cooke, prohibits the release of mugshots of juveniles charged with minor crimes, including the publication of those images on publicly maintained social media pages or websites. 

“Information that is posted on the internet lives on forever and can follow a person around for years,” Cooke said. “Worse, if charges are dropped, the mugshot of that juvenile lives on online, and the kid is associated with a crime they didn’t commit. I’m grateful to the support of my colleagues in passing this bill quickly to prevent these unnecessary side effects and end this hurtful practice.”

Those under 12 would only be able to be criminally charged with serious offenses, such as murder, while those facing minor charges would be referred to the Juvenile Civil Citation Program instead.

The Juvenile Civil Citation Program is “a statewide civil alternative to the formal arrest and criminal prosecution of youth under 18” and identifies the risks and needs of participants while  actively engaging them in community service.

House Bill 241, sponsored by Representative Debra Heffernan, would also allow police to refer juveniles to the program in cases involving underage possession of alcohol or marijuana.  

All three bills have been sent to Governor Carney for his signature.

Gun violence prevention

The Delaware General Assembly passed multiple pieces of legislation aimed at addressing gun violence. House Bill 125, sponsored by House Majority Leader Representative Valerie Longhurst, would ban the manufacture or sale of so-called “ghost guns.” 

Ghost guns are firearms with no serial numbers or other identifying markings, making them untraceable by law enforcement and often undetectable by metal detectors. These firearms can be made at home using kits, sold by unlicensed dealers and purchased without a background check.

“From closing the gun show and Charleston loopholes, to passing red flag laws, to expanding background checks, Delaware has been at the forefront of gun safety legislation,” Longhurst said. “Troublingly, individuals are constantly looking for loopholes to circumvent these laws. Ghost guns, which can be easily obtained online and built at home, are a terrifying way to bypass law enforcement, especially for people who are prohibited from possessing a firearm.”

House Bill 124, sponsored by Representative Krista Griffith, would prohibit someone from purchasing a firearm if they are the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant or an active indictment related to a felony or misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

“Separating from an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence. Studies show that more than half of women killed by an intimate partner are killed with a firearm,” Griffith said. “This bill will close a loophole in the system to protect victims of domestic violence and stop further acts of violence from being committed by a firearm. I’m grateful that we’ve taken this critical step that quite simply will save lives.”

Both bills are waiting for Governor Carney’s signature. Other gun violence prevention measures such as permit-to-purchase and limits on magazine capacity did not pass during this legislative session. 

Law enforcement accountability

On June 30, Governor Carney signed Senate Bill 147 into law, creating an objective use-of-force standard for Delaware law enforcement. Sponsored by Senator Marie Pinkney and Representative Sherry Dorsey Walker, the legislation stipulates that the use of both lethal and non-lethal force is legally justifiable only if determined to be “reasonable.” 

“Under current Delaware law, any use of force by a police officer, no matter how egregious and unnecessary, is considered perfectly legal as long as the officer in question uses the magic words, ‘I believed,’” Pinkney said. “This legislation will allow us to finally hold police officers accountable in a court of law when they commit unjustifiable acts of violence, something that is absolutely necessary if we ever hope to restore trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

The legislation also clarifies that deadly force includes the use of a chokehold, which officers are currently prohibited from using unless they believe deadly force is required. 

Pinkney and Dorsey Walker also sponsored Senate Bill 148, which would expand the power of the Delaware Department of Justice’s Division of Civil Rights and Public Trust to review police use-of-force incidents that result in serious physical injury. The legislation requires the division to report the race of individuals involved in use-of-force cases and specify whether race played a factor in how force was applied.

“Situations do arise when a police officer needs to use force when interacting with a person. However, it is critical that we help restore public trust by ensuring that there is transparency and accountability for those incidents,” Dorsey Walker said. “Increasing the Division of Civil Rights and Public Trust’s role in use-of-force incidents and applying the ‘reasonable’ standard will greatly improve accountability in situations where an officer uses force.”

Both bills were signed by Governor Carney in late June. Additionally, legislation implementing a statewide body-worn camera program once funding is available is currently waiting for signature.

“Body-worn cameras have the ability to be a game-changer in police-community relations. They greatly improve transparency and accountability while providing increased protection for both the police and the community,” Dorsey Walker said.

Other legislation that would have reformed the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to make records of police misconduct publicly accessible did not pass this session. 

Black history and anti-discrimination protections

The Delaware General Assembly unanimously passed Senate Bill 31, the second leg of a constitutional amendment to add “race, color, and national origin” to the equal rights clause of the Delaware Constitution. The current equal rights clause bars discrimination based on sex. 

While the action has no immediate consequences, it could guarantee protections for Delawareans in the event of negative changes on the federal level harming the rights of people of color. Senator Darius Brown, the primary sponsor of the bill, stressed the importance of the amendment in light of actions taken at the federal level.

“With all that we’ve seen at the federal level in recent years, what we’ve seen with the striking down of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, this is not a symbolic bill,” Brown said.

Brown also introduced Senate Bill 32, known as the Delaware CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair). The legislation is designed to prevent students, workers, tenants and others from being subjected to unequal treatment due to braids, locks, twists and other hairstyles or textures historically associated with race.

“Black hair is a fundamental part of the Black experience,” Brown said. “This legislation will make it clear that the State of Delaware does not accept our appearance being used as a weapon of harassment and discrimination.”

Representative Dorsey Walker sponsored House Bill 198, which would require schools to teach a comprehensive curriculum on Black history. The lessons included would examine the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and intolerance in a broader and more thorough context.

“Black history is American history, and if it is not taught, it can easily be forgotten,” Dorsey Walker said. “When teaching the history of our nation, the achievements, challenges, contributions, struggles and triumphs of Black people should not be segregated, but be incorporated into the American story, just as they unfolded in history.”

Dorsey Walker also sponsored House Bill 119 to make Juneteenth a statewide holiday. Juneteenth commemorates the day when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas were finally freed by the arriving union forces. Although slavery persisted in many places until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Juneteenth is still recognized as a national day of emancipation and the end of slavery in the United States.

“June 19, 1865 is the day of true independence for Black people across our nation,” Dorsey Walker said. “By placing Juneteenth on the same level as other holidays such as Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are now making that significance clear to all in our state.”

Governor Carney has signed all of the aforementioned legislation.

Election reform

On June 30, Governor Carney signed Senate Bill 5 to create an automatic voter registration system at the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Kyle Evans Gay, will permit all driver’s license applications to also serve as voter registration applications.

“Democracy works best when we make it as easy as possible for people to participate in the electoral process,” Gay said. “The first step in exercising your right to vote is getting registered as a voter. Many Delawareans do that at their local DMV and there are steps we can take to make that process even simpler.”

The legislation will take effect in two years after being signed, or five days after the Delaware Election Commissioner certifies that the systems to implement automatic voter registration are functional.

Other Democrat-sponsored election reform legislation did not pass this session.

House Bill 30, sponsored by Representative Stephanie Bolden, would move Delaware’s state primary elections to the same date as the presidential primary.

“In 2020, Delaware had the latest state primary in the country, just seven weeks before Election Day,” Bolden said. “That is an unfair and untenable situation for everyone involved: the candidates, the voters, and the elections staff who have to run two statewide elections within less than two months. It creates confusion for some voters because they have to cast ballots in a separate presidential primary, state primary, and general election.”

House Bill 25, sponsored by Representative Dorsey Walker, would allow same-day voter registration. Under this legislation, a person would be able to register to vote at their polling place on the day of a presidential or state primary or general or special election by showing valid documentation displaying their name and address.

“Currently, we have an arbitrary deadline several weeks before an election to register to vote, which disenfranchises potential voters. Upon missing this deadline, they are unable to cast ballots, even if they meet all other eligibility requirements,” Dorsey Walker said. “This is an outdated and unfair practice. Election Day registration has existed in several states for decades and is proven to safely and effectively increase voter turnout.”

House Bill 75, the second leg of a constitutional amendment to allow for no-excuse absentee voting, also did not pass this legislative session. Sponsored by Representative David Bentz, the bill would allow voters to cast absentee ballots without having to give an excuse.

Because this change requires an amendment to the Delaware Constitution, the legislation must be passed two years in a row, with a two-thirds vote each time rather than a simple majority. This resulted in a need for the Democratic legislators to convince Republicans to vote in their favor. 

Although 12 out of 15 Republicans voted for the same legislation in 2019, none of them voted for it this year. 

“From 2019 until now, nothing has changed about the efficacy, the security of absentee voting in Delaware and nationwide,” Bentz said in an interview with Delaware Online. “The only thing that has changed, unfortunately, is the rhetoric around it.”

Currently, Delawareans can only vote absentee when they meet a specific requirement listed in the state constitution. This list includes vacation, religion, military duty, disability and a few other exemptions. House Bill 75 would change this language to state that it is up to the Delaware General Assembly to decide how people can vote absentee.

Republicans argued that this change could be manipulated by their Democratic colleagues.

“That change significantly lowers the bar for majority Democrats to manipulate the law, with no Republican votes needed,” House Minority Leader Representative Danny Short said in an interview with Delaware Online. “Using that power, I believe they intend to turn no excuse absentee voting into a ‘vote by mail’ system – a scheme that will benefit Democrats.”

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers attempted to introduce their own package of election reform legislation, all of which was shot down by the Democratic majority. These measures included increasing penalties for voter fraud, reforming voter identification standards, and creating a task force to improve the accuracy of Delaware’s registered voter list. 

“We understand that we’re going to hear some criticism about these bills,” Short said following the introduction of the bills. “What I’m asking everyone to do is to cut through the rhetoric, read the bills, make up your own mind, and let us know what you think.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. Leave the voting laws as they were in 2016…absentee or in person
    Add more machines to speed the process up at locations that need them.

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