DCJ Welcomes Police Reform Policy & Organizing Coordinator Rob Vanella

After a robust search, the Delaware Center for Justice (DCJ) is excited to announce that Rob Vanella is joining the DCJ team as the organization’s first Police Reform Policy & Organizing Coordinator. A native of Wilmington, Rob is well-known to listeners of the Highlands Bunker podcast and readers of The Delaware Call, of which he is co-founder and serves as Coordinating Editor.

“I feel like I’ve been training my entire life for a role like this,” says Vanella. “I am excited to leverage a broad, diverse network of advocates, activists, and organizers in Delaware as well as the journalism we’ve done over the last five years (and will continue to do) to make a real impact on police reform policy in this legislative session.”

Rob’s position represents a partnership between the Office of Defense Services, the First State’s provider of legal services to indigent and incarcerated clients statewide, and DCJ, a provider of advocacy and services for justice-involved Delawareans since 1920. Rob’s leadership role, new to the social justice ecosystem in Delaware, was created to fill an existing coordination gap within police reform efforts and to support a broad coalition that will advocate for systemic changes to improve relations/trust between Delaware communities and law enforcement. Based out of DCJ, Vanella will have access to the full resources of the Office of Defense Services to meet these challenges head-on as he connects with key stakeholders in the coming weeks.

“Last year, the General Assembly took an important, if imperfect, first step toward meaningful policing reform with the passage of House bills 205 and 206,” says Dave Bever, executive director of DCJ. “We’re delighted to have Rob on board to support and coordinate next steps to guarantee that we don’t lose momentum in this crucial work.”

Visions of Justice Conference: Improving Legislation for the Justice-Impacted Community

The Visions of Justice Conference held last week brought together over 80 attendees to discuss the struggles that individuals face during reentry to society. The conference featured panelists who shared their personal stories, including Josie Haile and John Schmidt, reminding us all that our lives can change in an instant. Through perseverance and support, it is possible to overcome any obstacles. Participants also experienced a Reentry Simulation that highlighted the challenges faced by individuals trying to reintegrate into society after being incarcerated. The conference also covered important topics such as Clean Slate implementation and the impact on the justice-impacted community.

One of the most powerful experiences for participants was the Reentry Simulation facilitated by the United States Attorney’s Office of Eastern Pennsylvania and PAR-Recycle Works. The simulation demonstrated the challenges that individuals face after being released from incarceration, including difficulties accessing housing, transportation, and employment opportunities. It provided a unique perspective and reinforced the need for more support and resources for individuals during the reentry process.

The following panel, moderated by John Reynolds from the ACLU of Delaware, discussed Clean Slate implementation and its positive economic impact on the justice-impacted community. Panelists Ryan Ewing from the Clean Slate Initiative, Haneef Salaam, and Anthony Stanziale from the Delaware Center for Justice provided valuable insights into the challenges faced by individuals with criminal records and the opportunities provided by Clean Slate legislation. Clean Slate is a law that allows for the automatic expungement of certain criminal records, giving individuals a second chance at life through a clean slate, increased job opportunities, and access to housing and educational opportunities.

The conference continued with a keynote address by Dr. Yasser Payne, who focused on the aging incarcerated population. Dr. Payne spoke about the need to provide support and resources for individuals who are serving long-term sentences and the struggles they face as they age. Dr. Payne highlighted the need for more compassionate release programs, prison hospice care, and reentry support for aging individuals returning to society.

The Visions of Justice Conference highlighted the struggles faced by the justice-impacted community and the need for reform in legislation to provide support and resources to those transitioning back to society. The conference demonstrated that through collaboration and perseverance, it is possible to overcome any obstacle. The conference provided valuable insights into the efforts to improve Clean Slate legislation, providing a pathway towards economic stability for those with criminal records. The keynote speaker illustrated the need for more compassionate release programs for aging individuals affected by long-term incarceration.

Visions of Justice Conference allowed legal professionals and activists to come together to share important information and insights on crucial topics. One such highlight was Eliza Hirst’s presentation on the collateral consequences of juvenile records, which left a lasting impact on attendees. The final panel was moderated by DCJ’s Policy Director, Kailyn Richards, and featured a stimulating discussion with New Castle County Executive, Matt Meyer, Misty Seemans, Esq., Office of Defense Services, and Vonderlear Smack, of ALCU of Delaware. This panel brought attention to the sobering statistics of police misconduct and how understanding the new Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) can lead to new legislation that will make law enforcement more accountable and transparent. By bringing together powerful voices in the legal field, Visions of Justice Conference equipped participants with the information to combat injustice.

To learn more about Delaware’s Clean Slate law, find expungement assistance, and other resources, visit Clean Slate Delaware’s automated expungement hub, CleanSlateDE.org.

The Visions of Justice Conference was an essential event bringing together individuals and organizations working for the betterment of the justice-impacted community. The conference highlighted the need for compassionate and supportive legislation and programs to help individuals overcome the obstacles and challenges they face during reentry to society. The conference provided valuable insights into Clean Slate implementation and the positive impact it will have on the justice-impacted community. Through collaboration and continued efforts, we can help individuals overcome the challenges they face and provide a pathway towards a second chance at life.

A first step towards police reform

The Delaware Center for Justice (DCJ) supports HS 1 for House Bill 205 and House Bill 206 as a small first step in the right direction to increasing police transparency and accountability. With that being said, we fully acknowledge that HS 1 for HB 205 and HB 206 do not address all the communities’ concerns about the Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) and with policing in general, and for that we empathize with the families affected by the shortcomings of this legislation. It was clear after numerous conversations with lawmakers that this legislation has the support needed to pass and therefore, we must focus on moving forward.

To that end, we plan to advocate for a statewide police file retention policy and additional access to records not included in these bills. We will also fight for community appointments to the Council on Police Training (COPT), as well as the establishment of robust Civilian Review Boards (CRBs) to ensure that the community is centered in the response to police misconduct.

We urge members of the General Assembly to view HS 1 for HB 205 and HB 206 as a starting point to police reform, and therefore, the work must not end here. The Delaware Center for Justice looks forward to implementation, analyzing the data, and working with legislators on future police reform efforts.

In solidarity,

Dave Bever

Executive Director

Delaware Center for Justice

Clean Slate Delaware Hosts CSI, Advocates, and Directly Impacted Leaders at State Capitol for Second Chance Month Lobby Day

Delaware’s Clean Slate Act will take effect in August 2024, but for people living with a record in Delaware, that implementation can’t come soon enough. That’s why Clean Slate DE held its first Lobby Day on April 4, 2023, to educate lawmakers on the necessary reforms to make the 2024 implementation successful, accessible, and equitable.

Community advocates, directly impacted leaders, and Clean Slate DE partners, including the ACLU of Delaware, Delaware Center for Justice, and the Clean Slate Initiative, met with state legislators at Legislative Hall in Dover. We’re incredibly proud of the work these dedicated individuals did in bringing our key campaign issues to lawmakers’ attention. Advocates held group meetings with state senators and representatives regarding two campaign priorities: the successful implementation of the state’s automated record sealing law and ensuring all cases that do not include a conviction are eligible for automated expungement.  

Successful implementation means eliminating the barriers that fines and fees present to the expungement process. Despite being among the first states to pass Clean Slate legislation, we’re the only “Clean Slate” state that limits eligibility for record clearance due to outstanding fines and fees. Living with a record can make financial barriers hard to overcome. Fines and fees related to a person’s record often go unpaid because people cannot access stable employment, housing, and opportunities for advancement due to their record. 

Allowing individuals to clear their records regardless of what they owe is a common-sense solution to increase financial stability for Delawareans and help people pay their outstanding fines and fees. Delaware’s reputation as the “First State” should motivate us to set a forward-thinking example: bringing Delaware in line with known best practices will encourage all future states to tackle fines and fees when passing initial Clean Slate laws.

Lobbying groups also addressed the issue of non-conviction records. A substantial number of people with records in Delaware have records for non-convictions only, which means after their arrest, the person was either never charged or never convicted of a crime in that case — but they’re still saddled with the consequences of a record. A Delaware non-conviction record, just like a conviction record, remains publicly available and will appear on background checks unless it is expunged. 

All cases that do not include a conviction should be eligible for the automated expungement process, including Delawareans serving a period of incarceration, probation, or parole. Currently, no one on probation or parole is eligible for any form of expungement, including for separate cases that did not result in a conviction. People should never be punished for cases decided in their favor, and records that never led to a conviction shouldn’t hinder anyone’s livelihood. 

Over the course of the day, 45 advocates met with over 20 legislators seeking their commitment to support and act on these priorities. In addition to being prepped with pre-lobby training and talking point resources, many of the directly impacted advocates had received prior storytelling training. This enabled them to effectively communicate their experiences in the most impactful way possible when speaking to legislators.

The lobby day was received well by legislators across both parties, energizing advocates and lawmakers to work together toward a successful Clean Slate implementation in 2024. 

Clean Slate efforts don’t end at the passage of the initial legislation, and that’s why this lobbying event was so important. The campaign and community must continue to engage legislators to navigate the complicated implementation process and ensure the law has its intended impact. Records are a substantial barrier to many life-sustaining goals, like finding a place to live and a good job. We must work together to ensure that Clean Slate’s implementation is as smooth as possible for the Delawareans who need that relief — and paves a path for other states to successfully implement their own Clean Slate policies.

Second Chance Stories: Using Storytelling to Transform the Justice System

Ahead of Second Chances Month, Clean Slate Delaware hosted a two-part storytelling training to elevate the stories of impacted voices during the upcoming CSDE Lobby Day on Tuesday, April 4th at Legislative Hall in Dover.

Currently, up to 400,000 people who have a record in Delaware live with limited access to jobs, housing, education, starting a business, or participating fully in social and civic community life. Behind every single one of those 400,000 records is a story. 

Last month, I was invited to participate in a Clean Slate Delaware (CSDE) Campaign storytelling training. This two-part series aimed to help impacted individuals like myself gain the tools to effectively share our first-hand experiences living with a record, and use those experiences to impact positive policy change that offers true second chances for Delawareans. 

Unfortunately, living with a record means many impacted individuals don’t always have the time or transportation to attend valuable events such as this. However, CSDE Campaign partners worked hard to ensure participants schedules were accommodated, and virtual attendance options were available for those unable to be physically present. It was encouraging to see several men that I had served time with be able to attend and participate. Being in a room of individuals with shared experiences provides connection and comfort that can be difficult for so many to find during the reentry process. 

Throughout the training, we dived into the power of storytelling, and how our stories can have real and persuasive influence on audiences- particularly, elected officials. The facilitators were very engaging, constantly encouraging interaction and feedback between participants and CSDE Campaign leaders. Seeing storytelling strategies modeled not only helped enhance our understanding, but allowed us to really feel the increased impact and connection that comes with telling stories for rather than to an audience. 

At the end of the training, we were given the opportunity to share our personal stories in small groups and receive feedback from our fellow participants. I could already begin to feel the difference in my storytelling skills as I spoke with greater confidence, intention, and awareness of my story’s purpose. I made conscious efforts to incorporate strategies like creating detailed visual imagery for my audience. It felt liberating to not only tell my own story, but to know that I was lending a listening ear that allowed others to have a similar experience.

As Second Chances Month nears, I am eager to use my new storytelling skills to engage legislators during the Clean Slate Delaware Lobby Day on April 4. Our stories prove the critical need for elected officials to support reforms that will expand expungement eligibility and accessibility.  If you are passionate about joining the fight for second chances for Delawareans like myself, I encourage you to attend. 

Everyone deserves a second chance.


For questions, please contact Clean Slate Delaware Manager, John Reynolds, at jreynolds@aclu-de.org

The trauma of Black Americans

Another reign of terror toward innocent people happened on May 14, 2022, in America. Unfortunately, incidents like these show up more and more on my news feed. Ten people were killed and three wounded while going to the grocery store in Buffalo, New York. (The grocery store is now added to the places that are unsafe for Black and brown people.) The only common denominator of the victims is the color of their skin. A white supremacist intentionally went into a predominantly black community—hundreds of miles from his home — to do what has been done countless times in this country. 

Acts like this play a large factor in the trauma Black Americans live with on a daily basis. Let’s step back for a second and think about the ramifications of seeing Black lives taken and shared online. 

Psychological Trauma

To witness domestic terrorism — in everyday places — and then be expected to go on as if nothing happened causes psychological trauma. It is a shared trauma among members of Black and brown communities who feel gaslit when they return to work and their coworkers don’t acknowledge their pain. When they turn on the television or scroll social media and see select politicians, journalists, and their neighbors defend those who espouse racist “replacement theories” as being somehow not racist. 

Gaslighting

Historically, gaslighting is a major component of covert racism. Gaslighting undermines a person’s judgment, perception, or memory. Racial gaslighting makes the victim question their judgment on issues of racism. This psychologically abusive behavior is at work again with the murderer Payton Gerdon pleading not guilty due to mental illness. Select journalists and politicians alike are co-signing that it was indeed a mental illness. Despite his own racist manifesto and ideological beliefs, the Black community is gaslit once again.

Healing

Scars heal, but they also leave a mark as a reminder of the pain. Unfortunately, Black people haven’t had the chance of collective healing. Instead, America keeps picking the scab and festering the wound. Recently, Greg Foster, a prison guard at Attica Correctional Facility posted on FaceBook a picture of Tops grocery store that read “ Clean up on aisle 3, no wait 4, also on 7, 9, 12, and 13”. Microaggressions such as this don’t stop, and everyday Black people have to try and navigate in a world where their bodies are expendable. There’s no healing living under these circumstances.

So what is the path to healing?  Do something. Ask yourself, “What am I doing to end racism?”. And then get to work.  Be an ally. We often think allyship is only protesting. It is more than that. Vote. Hold your local legislators accountable. Check on your Black and brown friends. Speak up when you see microaggressions. Don’t stand idly by as racism and Black trauma continues to manifest.

Mercedes Watson, Author