Commentary Politics

Delaware Attorney General Candidate Chris Johnson Wants ‘Bold, Progressive Reform’

Jodi Jacobson

Johnson's campaign seeks to address the state's approach to criminal justice and mass incarceration, white collar crime, and environmental health, among other issues.

Chris Johnson is a “Delawarean by choice,” a former community organizer, an attorney who has spent years fighting voter suppression, and an advocate for justice.

He is also running for attorney general of Delaware, where he sees the need for “bold, progressive reform” in the state’s approach to criminal justice and mass incarceration, white collar crime, and environmental health, to name but a few of the challenges his campaign seeks to address.

Bottom line? According to Johnson, progress in these and other areas has languished due to lack of attention from the state’s governors, lawmakers, and attorneys general, past and present, the majority of them Democrats. “Having lived, worked, and volunteered here for years now,” said Johnson in a campaign statement, “I am all too familiar with the major problems that plague our neighborhoods: lack of job opportunities; underperforming public schools; rampant crime and drug abuse not only in the City of Wilmington, but throughout many overshadowed communities in all three counties.”

“This race is very important,” Johnson told me in an interview. “Because the reforms I’ve talked about during this entire journey are reforms that are long overdue.”

“Honestly, I wish that at this juncture we didn’t have to be talking about these things because they should have been addressed a long time ago,” Johnson said.

Mass incarceration is one of Johnson’s priorities, and he sees it as a financial issue, a moral issue, and an issue of social justice.

Delaware is in some ways a microcosm of the crisis of mass incarceration across the United States, often criminalizing people simply for being poor, and, in turn, perpetuating poverty across families, communities, and generations. The poverty rate for Black people in Delaware is twice that for whites. Delaware is the smallest state in the country next to Rhode Island, but ranks 11th nationwide in rates of incarceration, Johnson said. Blacks make up less than 22 percent of the state’s population, but are more than half of the prison population. The state spends almost $300 million, or 16 percent of its state budget, on the Department of Corrections, Johnson said.

Johnson wants to “decarcerate” Delaware by taking a holistic approach to mass incarceration. Ending cash bail—a major contributor to high rates of incarceration across the country—is one step. “Sixty percent of our prisoners [in Delaware] are held on cash bail of $200 or less,” Johnson told me. “It really is a problem, and the problem is pretrial, because they have not even been convicted yet, and they are incarcerated pretrial.”

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Bail often is set so high for people arrested and arraigned even for the most minor crimes, they can’t afford to pay it. And so, they languish in jails, without ever having been tried and convicted.

“Not only does our current bail system needlessly imprison low-risk and nonviolent offenders, but it is also unable to keep criminals with deep pockets or connections to gangs, traffickers, or other nefarious organizations off the streets and prevent them from continuing to commit crimes until their trial,” Johnson wrote in a Medium post. “Prosecutors often stack charges in an attempt to secure a plea bargain, ensuring that a person accused of a crime will serve some amount of time,” he wrote in an op-ed at Delaware Online

“Sentencing schemes also force folks to have to succumb to plea bargains” just to get out of jail even when they are innocent, Johnson told me. This gives a lot of leverage to prosecutors who want to put or keep people in prison. “Facing 17 to 25 years on a charge is a lot of time,” Johnson said. “Those practices themselves need to be in play.”

The end result of this system is to “trap low-income individuals—many of whom are innocent—behind bars while awaiting trial.”

If elected, Johnson also wants to take on the state’s “ineffective system of parole due to a law called Truth in Sentencing, which requires prisoners to serve most their sentence, despite any evidence of good behavior, remorse, or recovery from substance abuse.” He points to lack of investment in rehabilitation or training for prisoners as part of the reason the system is broken, and the driver of a rate of recidivism that sends more than 70 percent of those re-entering society back to prison.

In addition to ending cash bail and addressing sentencing practices, Johnson wants to repopulate devastated communities in part by enabling ex-offenders “to return home, contribute to the economy, and re-stabilize their neighborhoods … reducing high rates of recidivism through job training skills,” he told me by phone.

“Mass incarceration is bankrupting Delaware, in both a moral and fiscal sense,” Johnson wrote in his op-ed. “When it comes to prison populations, there is plenty of evidence to show that reducing the associated costs of mass incarceration by ending cash bail, stopping the War on Drugs, and declining to prosecute certain kinds of nonviolent cases, would both save money and solve the problem of prison overpopulation that generates so much risk to correctional officers.”

Getting “smart on correctional policy,” he argues, could cut Delaware’s prison population and free up tens of millions for investing in other areas such as education to ensure the state’s students “succeed in the modern economy.”

“These issues are critical because the citizens and families that are affected most are low-income and communities of color,” he told me. “So, we need to target specifically the practices that oppress the most disadvantaged in our system. We must work to unstack the deck.”

Where some AGs might see a so-called law-and-order approach to persistent problems, Johnson’s vision of addressing numerous challenges faced by communities in Delaware goes well beyond his legal training. He wants the AG’s office to treat urban gun violence as the “as the public health crisis that it is,” while also espousing a public health approach to the opioid epidemic through “direct investment in lifesaving prevention and intervention programming for both youth and adults,” especially in communities of color.

He wants to tackle water pollution in the state by going after corporate polluters. “Almost 90 percent of Delaware’s waterways are contaminated,” according to Johnson’s campaign. “Polluters both in Delaware and upstream must be held accountable and we must fight for a solution to this crisis.”

“Clean water is an issue, especially in Sussex County, which is very rural,” Johnson said. Water pollution in the county is a systemic problem stemming primarily from unaccountable agribusiness. If elected, Johnson wants his success as AG to be measured in part by improvements in access to clean water.

He wants the toxic water situation in communities across the state to be declared a public health epidemic and promises to vigorously prosecute all perpetrators of environmental crimes to the fullest extent of the law. He also pledges to file civil and administrative actions against polluters and seek injunctions that take repeat violations into account. He is calling for a “comprehensive investigation of the historical problem of groundwater contamination and air pollution by polluters who have created a human-made emergency that today threatens the very lives of people in Sussex County.” And he wants to “take the lead in creating a national coalition of state attorneys general to bring polluters of our water and our air to justice.”

“There has been a fundamental betrayal of the public trust, causing increases to Delaware’s health-care costs and killing our loved ones,” Johnson states. “It is well past time to bring the wrongdoers to justice.”

Johnson also has prosecution of corporate and white collar criminals on his list. “Predatory lending and internet-based threats are just two types of fraud that terrorize everyone, from our students to our seniors and everyone in between,” he said.

Corporate crime and money laundering are other major problems in the state due to lax oversight and the failures of Democrats in control of the state to take on powerful business interests. Over 60 percent of the country’s Fortune 500 companies are incorporated in Delaware and the state is home to thousands of shell companies used to transfer money—including political dark money—from one place or entity to another without detection.

“Our system is broken,” Johnson told me. “Even before I started running, I have been highlighting this issue. Because of income inequality, those who don’t have the resources are treated differently in our system. And that is really what we are dealing with. We have a situation where white collar crime is handled differently and as the so-called corporate capital of America, we definitely played a special role in turning a blind eye to white collar crime. There are very few instances of corporations in Delaware being held accountable by the state. [There are] virtually no cases where companies have been held accountable by the state attorney general.”

“All of this really disadvantages the poor and the groups that are disenfranchised. That is why I stepped up to run,” he said. “To represent the 99 percent that need to be treated fairly in the justice system.”

I asked Johnson what differentiates him from his opponents, and in short, he said, “a lot.”

“The argument I make and I keep it simple: Decide who to vote for based on what they were doing before they decided to run,” he said. “That holds true. I have a reputation in the community as an activist, as a community organizer, involved in work with countless church-based and community centers. I’ve been involved in fighting voter suppression and in party politics and in community organizations.”

“My opponents [former chief deputy attorneys general Lakresha Roberts and Kathy Jennings] both had high-powered positions and could have affected change, but did not. They did not act.”

Asked what his strategy is for the race itself, Johnson says: “Mobilize people, get out the vote through ground-level organizing.”

Clearly, though, he also has a broader vision for Delaware than usually espoused by candidates for state attorney general. “Some people say to me, ‘Chris, you are running for AG, not the Senate.’ But I talk about the intersectionality of income inequality and social justice reform. We talk about the criminal justice system and the need for changes, but we also have to also speak out about educational inequality and health care inequality and lack of access to affordable housing. Those are issues that limit opportunity.”

“Even as candidates for this office, we need to be speaking out about other issues … because criminal justice is tied to economic justice is tied to reproductive justice. Justice is so many things. It’s not just in the criminal context.”

“Under my leadership you will get bold progressive reform in the way of nuts and bolts criminal justice reform, but also civil rights, protecting voting rights, and in a range of other areas,” said Johnson.

This week, Johnson also secured a major endorsement from Real Justice PAC, led by journalist and civil rights advocate Shaun King. “We have a real opportunity to create change in Delaware’s justice system, and finally address their rampant mass incarceration,” said King, co-founder of Real Justice. “If we elect Chris Johnson as Delaware’s next attorney general, he will make history as the state’s first chief law enforcement officer to fight back against mass incarceration, and build teams of reform-minded district attorneys across the state.”

The Delaware primary is September 6th.

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