House lawmakers have approved a bill allowing Delaware judges to use their discretion in deciding whether juveniles should be tried as adults for carrying guns while committing felonies.
The measure passed the House unanimously Tuesday with no debate and now goes to the Senate.
Under current law, a juvenile over age 15 who is charged with possession of a firearm during commission of a felony must be tried as an adult.
Until last year, the offense was one of five felony charges for which state law required juveniles to be prosecuted as adults in Superior Court rather than as juveniles in Family Court, where a defendant would likely face lesser punishment.
Legislation passed last year gave judges discretion regarding prosecutions for the four other offenses: riot, use or possession of an explosive device with intent to cause bodily harm or property damage, possession of a deadly weapon while committing a felony, and wearing body armor while committing a felony.
The firearm offense, however, was stripped from last year's bill.
Under the current legislation, judges would be granted discretion in determining whether a juvenile over age 16 should be tried in Family Court or Superior Court for possessing a firearm during a felony. A last-minute amendment added Tuesday requires that a defendant be tried as an adult, however, if a Superior Court judge finds that there is clear, strong evidence that the person actually used, displayed, or discharged the gun during a felony, with the exception of certain drug crimes.
Under current law, a defendant convicted as an adult for possession of firearm during commission of a felony faces a minimum mandatory sentence of three years in prison. The minimum mandatory sentence is five years if the conviction represents the defendant's third felony.
In Family Court, however, a juvenile 14 years or older who is found guilty of possession of a firearm during commission of felony faces a minimum of only six months in custody. More broadly, juvenile offenders normally do not remain subject to Family Court jurisdiction beyond their 19th birthday.
Co-sponsors of the bill offering the possibility of greater leniency for juvenile gun offenders include Democratic lawmakers who have proposed increasing the age for all gun purchases to 21.
Under current law, a person who is at least 18 but younger than 21 and has not been convicted of a felony is allowed to purchase a rifle or shotgun, but not a handgun.