- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Delaware’s attorney general, joined by police officials, is criticizing an effort by a committee established by lawmakers to overhaul the state’s criminal code.

The Criminal Justice Improvement Committee was authorized in budget-bill language two years ago with the charge of suggesting efficiencies, improvements and cost savings in Delaware’s criminal justice system.

Members of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday received their first briefing about the justice panel’s initial work from Paul Robinson, a University of Pennsylvania law professor serving as a hired consultant to judges, criminal defense attorneys and other officials in the reform effort.

Robinson told lawmakers that all states are dealing with bloated, confusing, and redundant criminal laws as the result of decades of amendments to a model penal code that dates back to the 1960s.

“An easy thing to do is pass a criminal law. It’s not always the best thing to do,” he said.

By way of example, Robinson brandished a 56-page packet of current Delaware laws relating to robbery and assault, comparing it with a proposed draft consolidation of text numbering only six pages.

“It’s very difficult to understand what the law in any jurisdiction is,” said Robinson, who has worked with other states on criminal code revisions and suggested that Delaware could become a model for others to follow by streamlining and simplifying its criminal code.

“This could be the first state to do it right,” he said.

But Attorney General Matt Denn said a complete rewrite would be all wrong.

“As far as we know, the legislature has never asked for the criminal code to be eliminated in its entirety and rewritten from scratch,” Denn said after the meeting after his request to address the finance committee was denied.

Denn said rewriting the code could jeopardize public safety, erase a decades-old body of criminal law, and create huge uncertainty among attorneys and law enforcement. His concerns are echoed by victim advocacy groups and the leaders of the Delaware State Troopers Association, the Delaware Police Chiefs Council and the state Fraternal Order of Police.

Veteran prosecutor Steve Wood, who attended the first meeting of the Criminal Justice Improvement Committee at the request of the judiciary, said Delaware’s current criminal code has “a lot of predictability.”

“The proposal is to replace it with something that wouldn’t exist anywhere else in the United States,” Wood said. “So we’d be throwing out 40 years of Supreme Court case law, potentially. We wouldn’t be able to turn to other states for interpretive guidance when that was necessary.”

Denn, whose office periodically recommends changes to the criminal code, said he is not opposed to making specific changes when necessary.

“The issue is whether it’s a good idea to completely rip up the current criminal code and start it over from scratch,” he said.

Robinson suggested that one explanation for the attorney general’s opposition is that a rewrite of the code may make it more difficult for prosecutors to lodge several overlapping or redundant charges against a defendant in order to gain leverage for a plea bargain.

Denn rejected that notion.

“I think our prosecutors act very responsibly and ethically in making their charging decisions, and I think any implication to the contrary is inappropriate,” Denn said.

Robinson and Chief Justice Leo Strine Jr. said public hearings would be held later this year to receive input on the Criminal Justice Improvement Committee’s work.

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