In Delaware, a felony is any crime that may be punished by more than one year and up to life in prison. Offenses that carry a sentence of one year or less fall under the classification of misdemeanor. Read on to learn how judges determine and impose felony sentences in Delaware.
Like many states, Delaware divides felony crimes into classes. Delaware uses seven classes—classes A to G—with class A felonies being the most serious and class G felonies the least. Within these seven classes, Delaware further divides felonies into violent and nonviolent categories. The law considers all class A felonies to be violent offenses, but the remaining classes are divided between the two categories. For instance, assault is a class B violent felony, and theft over $100,000 is a class B nonviolent felony.
The law specifies a maximum sentence for each felony class. Classes A and B also carry minimum sentences that must be imposed. Below are the maximum and minimum sentences (where applicable), plus examples of offenses under each class.
Class A felonies carry a minimum prison sentence of 15 years and a maximum of life. Examples include first- and second-degree murder and first-degree rape. (Delaware law still references the death penalty, but the state's highest court found it unconstitutional.)
Class C felonies carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years. Examples include first-degree vehicular homicide, fourth-degree rape, first-degree arson, and a seventh or subsequent DWI.
Class E felonies carry a maximum prison sentence of 5 years. Examples include prohibited possession of a firearm, witness tampering, and certain computer offenses.
(Del. Code, tit. 11 §§ 4204, 4205 (2023).)
The sentences described above are maximum sentences. Judges can generally impose any sentence up to the maximum. In Delaware, judges have a set of guidelines that assist in calculating sentences.
The guidelines look at several factors to determine an offender's sentence, including:
Using these factors, the guidelines set a presumptive (standard) sentence—the sentence that the judge must generally hand down unless the circumstances justify a different punishment. This presumptive sentence recommends the length of the sentence and how it should be served (in prison or on probation). Most often, the judge will use the recommended sentence. However, if exceptional circumstances exist, the judge may impose a different sentence.
When substantial and compelling reasons exist, a judge may break from the presumptive sentence and impose an exceptional sentence above or below it. Here are some examples of exceptional sentencing factors.
Aggravating and mitigating factors. Aggravating factors may justify going above the recommended sentence. An example would be a defendant who commits a crime against a vulnerable victim. On the flip side, a judge might impose a sentence below the recommended time or impose probation rather than prison if mitigating factors were involved, such as a defendant being a first-time offender or induced by others to commit the crime.
Statutory aggravation. Certain crimes carry minimum sentences that must be imposed. For instance, a judge must impose a mandatory prison sentence of at least two years for a person convicted of first-degree vehicular homicide.
Habitual offenders. The law imposes harsh penalties for persons deemed habitual criminals—those who are being sentenced for a third or subsequent felony. The penalty varies depending on the number of priors and whether the current and prior felonies were considered violent or nonviolent. An offender could face a minimum sentence that is one-half of or equal to the statutory maximum for the offense. The maximum sentence can increase to life imprisonment.
(Del. Code tit. 11, §§ 4214, 4215 (2023).)
Below are examples of recommended sentences for a class C violent felony with a maximum 15-year prison term.
Under Delaware's sentencing guidelines, the presumptive (standard) sentence for a class C violent felony is up to 30 months (less than three years) in prison. However, if the defendant:
As you can see, the actual sentence imposed will depend on the circumstances of the offense and the defendant's remorse (or lack thereof), prior convictions, and custody status. A defendant could get less than 2 years behind bars or up to 10 years. In even more egregious cases, the judge could impose the maximum 15-year sentence.
You can find the presumptive guidelines' sentence for other felonies in the most recent benchbook put out by the Delaware Sentencing Accountability Commission.
Delaware's guidelines also assist judges in determining whether a defendant should serve prison time or be placed on probation. There are five supervision levels: Levels 1 to 5.
Probation applies when an offender receives a sentence indicating a supervision level of 1 to 4. Level 1 carries the least restrictive supervision terms, while Level 4 imposes the most restrictive terms.
Probation suspends the prison sentence and allows a person to serve the sentence in the community under supervision. The suspended prison sentence looms over the person's head as an incentive to comply with the conditions of probation. Probation conditions may include remaining law-abiding, attending treatment, reporting to a probation officer, maintaining employment, or performing community service. If a defendant violates these terms, the judge can modify probation or revoke probation and send the offender to prison to serve the suspended sentence.
Probation terms are capped at 24 months for violent felonies, 18 months for Title 16 felonies (drug offenses), and 12 months for all other felonies. A judge can go beyond these time limits in limited circumstances.
(Del. Code tit. 11, §§ 4204, 4333 (2023).)
If the guidelines recommend Level 5 supervision, the person will serve their sentence in prison. A person may also face prison time if their probation is revoked. Most offenders sent to prison will serve 75% to 100% of their sentence behind bars. Delaware doesn't have a parole release system.
(Del. Code, tit. 11, §§ 4381, 4204 (2023).)
Delaware law (like most states) provides a time limit for filing a criminal case—called a statute of limitations. Several crimes—murder, class A felonies, and certain child sex offenses—have no time limits and can be charged at any time after the crime was committed. But for other felonies, the prosecutor must generally file charges within 5 to 10 years of the crime being committed or reported.
(Del. Code tit. 11, § 205 (2023).)
A felony conviction carries harsh penalties that go beyond the current sentence. If you're convicted later of another felony, the court can consider your prior conviction and impose a harsher sentence in the new case. Being a convicted felon can hurt you when looking for a job or applying for housing. Convicted felons lose the right to vote, carry firearms, and obtain certain professional licenses.
If you're charged with a felony, talk to a local criminal defense attorney who can determine whether you have any grounds for dismissal, explore plea options, or represent you at trial. For past convictions, you may want to speak with an attorney about expungement options to clear your public record.