Smart Pretrial Reform in Delaware

Photo credit: David Y. Lee for Pretrial Justice Institute

Photo credit: David Y. Lee for Pretrial Justice Institute


With sensible approaches and support from communities, Public Welfare Foundation grantee Delaware Center for Justice takes a lead role in pretrial detention reform in that state.

In July, 2011, as his state’s prison population remained stubbornly high, Delaware Governor Jack Markell issued an Executive Order calling for “a systematic study” of the state’s correctional system and criminal justice structure.

Although Delaware’s overall crime rate had been going down, the state had experienced increases in homicides, robberies, and assaults, and its violent crime rate was above the national average. In addition, spending on corrections had increased more than 80 percent from 1999 to 2009 and totaled more than $250 million a year at the time of the order.

Gov. Markell’s order created the Delaware Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which was comprised of most of the state’s major legal and law enforcement officials, as well as legislative members and other stakeholders. Delaware is one of only a few states with a unified correctional system, in which the state manages both prisons and jails.

The task force found that 29 percent of prison admissions were due to misdemeanor offenses. Equally troubling was the realization that about 24 percent of the state’s confined population consisted of people awaiting trial, primarily nonviolent offenders without any history of failing to appear in court.

Such findings prompted the state to reset its criminal justice priorities and by the end of 2013, the legislature passed an important new law, the Justice Reinvestment Act, which, among other things, required the use of a pretrial risk assessment tool to help make better decisions as to who could be released safely.

As some of the justice reinvestment strategies were beginning to be implemented, state policymakers reached out to the Delaware Center for Justice (DCJ), a well-established non-profit in Wilmington and the only community-based organization invited to be a partner in the reform effort. DCJ has been providing services, such as mediation and intervention, to communities since 1921. But, in recent years, it has also been an important voice for criminal justice reform in the state, particularly since it absorbed the nonprofit group, Stand Up for What’s Right and Just (SURJ), in 2012 as its advocacy arm.

And the Public Welfare Foundation has been supporting SURJ since 2012 to advocate for systemic reductions in Delaware’s incarcerated population.

Joanna Champney, former executive director of DCJ, recalls the reaction of DCJ and SURJ staff when they saw the make-up of the pretrial population and the fact that so many were being held for nonviolent offenses and for lack of ability to pay bail. “After reviewing the data, we realized that many of these people could be safely supervised in the community. We started asking the questions, ‘Why are they being detained? What’s going on?’”

The Foundation’s Criminal Justice program has focused on pretrial detention policy as a significant contributing factor to increased incarceration rates. Research shows that people who are detained pretrial receive worse plea offers, are more likely to be sentenced to prison if they are found guilty, and receive harsher prison sentences than those who are released under court-ordered supervision, even when they face the same charge and have the same criminal history.

The Foundation helped expose DCJ to pretrial efforts in other jurisdictions.

“It became clear to us that [other places] were moving away from ability to pay [bail] as the determining factor and they were looking at these objective risk categories,” said Champney. “So we knew that was the way to go…Our hope was that by adjusting some of the front-end policies that were bringing people into the system, we could see a reduction in the prison population and that the funds saved could be shifted toward community programming and prevention.”

In 2014, DCJ gained even more stature to help make that vision a reality as it received a prestigious grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice. Only two other jurisdictions in the country – Yakima County, Washington and Denver, Colorado – were tapped for the Smart Pretrial Demonstration Initiative, and DCJ is the only non-governmental entity to be included.

Delaware’s pretrial reform work has become more challenging and more exciting. During the last year, as the state has implemented its own Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument (PRAI), it has been better able to identify defendants who pose a risk of flight or re-arrest and those who can be released safely. But the number of individuals being referred to the state’s Pretrial Services unit has skyrocketed and officials have been struggling to manage them effectively in communities.

That helped persuade Department of Correction Commissioner Robert Coupe to seek successfully a $250,000 allocation from the Governor and General Assembly in this year’s budget for a one-year pilot program to bring a community-based agency into the process. Rick VanStory Resource Center (RVRC), a multi-service nonprofit in Wilmington, submitted the winning bid.

Last fall, staff members from DCJ took Commissioner Coupe, and staff from RVRC on a field trip to meet with staff at the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, a nonprofit that provides pretrial services under contract.

As Champney recalls, “[W]e saw for the first time, okay, this is how another jurisdiction is doing this in the community. And this isn’t a state agency, or a county agency, but the community has taken charge and is solving this issue. So, that was huge, to have some kind of community-based model to guide us.”

RVRC is now getting its sea legs with pretrial services. Although it has been working with fewer than two dozen clients since February, it is prepared to handle up to 250 people. Case managers assess each defendant to determine whether he or she needs general services, or has housing, mental health, or substance abuse issues. DCJ and RVRC plan to reach out to magistrates, other court officials, prosecutors, and public defenders to familiarize them with RVRC and encourage them to use the organization to work with more – and more complicated – pretrial cases.

As a result of the Smart Pretrial grant and its reputation as a neutral force for change, DCJ has gained a lot of credibility and is now a recognized leader in Delaware’s pretrial reform efforts. It is a key player on a policy committee formed under the Smart Pretrial Initiative, consisting of state and community stakeholders – including Champney, who now participates as Chief of Planning for the Correction Commissioner’s Planning & Research Unit – that is delving deeper into how to make reform more meaningful.

Kirstin Cornnell, Director of Operations at DCJ, says, “We realize that [a reform agenda] is much more complicated than just getting a risk assessment in place.”

She noted that, with the help of a technical assistance provider, a “decision-point map,” will be created, “showing all the different agencies, how they communicate with each other, and where all of the decision points are happening concerning pretrial.” That information will be linked with the state’s detention data to paint a better picture of, “not only how the system is supposed to be working, but how it’s actually working in practice,” Cornnell said.

The ultimate goal is to identify, and then close, the systemic gaps that are preventing more people from being released before trial.

Kate Parker West, who has been brought on at DCJ as the local site coordinator for the Smart Pretrial Initiative, noted that officials are being asked “to do a lot of serious self-reflection and system reflection – and to be very uncomfortable.”

Gathering data and examining numbers are not idle exercises. Rather, the process is meant to provoke responses, just as Gov. Markell’s order did.

Said West, “Once you see the numbers, if that creates enough of a sense of crisis, then that can propel change in very positive and real ways.”

Whether it’s being driven by a sense of crisis or discomfort, Champney thinks the political will for change has taken hold in Delaware and that, increasingly, there is a “common vision emerging, where more people who are low- or moderate-risk can remain in the community while they are waiting for their trial date.”


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

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