- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - Delaware’s “cumbersome and overly complicated” drug laws result in disproportionate penalties for poor people and urban minorities, Attorney General Matt Denn said Monday in discussing ongoing reforms to the state’s criminal justice system.

Denn also reiterated a call for lawmakers to close a gun law loophole that lets felons who committed violent crimes as juveniles escape jail time for illegally possessing firearms.

The attorney general noted that the state criminal code allows harsher sentences for possessing drugs inside a vehicle or within a few hundred feet of a school, park or church. The result, he said, is that people living in more populated urban areas are more likely than those in suburban and rural areas to face enhanced sentences.

“I don’t think that type of disparity was the intent of the law,” Denn said, nevertheless noting that inequality is built into the statute simply based on where a drug crime is committed.

If the intent is to protect children from drug dealers, that goal can be achieved by mandating prison time for adults who sell drugs to minors, he said.

Denn also called on lawmakers to provide more substance abuse treatment for criminal drug offenders, whether in prison or in diversion programs that allow certain offenders avoid incarceration.

It’s unclear whether Denn’s proposal for more substance abuse treatment resources will gain any traction in the General Assembly next year, given the state’s budget constraints. Earlier this year, members of the legislature’s budget-writing committee rejected a proposal by Gov. Jack Markell for more than $2 million in additional spending for substance abuse disorder services to help fight a growing epidemic of drug addiction.

Denn also said he will press lawmakers once again to allow mandatory jail time for gun possession by criminals prohibited from possessing firearms because of violent felonies committed when they were juveniles. Lawmakers have declined to adopt a similar proposal Denn made last year.

Currently, a person prohibited from having a gun faces a mandatory prison sentence ranging from three to 10 years if convicted of having a firearm. That mandatory time does not apply, however, if the prohibition on gun possession stems from a juvenile violent felony.

“I think it’s critically important that these people face real jail time,” Denn said.

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