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Attorney General Beau Biden and legislative leaders have crafted legislation increasing penalties for criminals who break into homes and threaten or injure its residents.

Media accounts of recent home invasions have graphically depicted suspects breaking into homes and assaulting residents – in one case, with a metal pole – or holding them at gunpoint while robbing the home. Those stories and talking firsthand with residents who had been victims of home invasions prompted Rep. Debra Heffernan to contact Biden’s office to draft legislation that would address the seriousness of this crime.

“This bill sends a strong message and promises the certainty of a long prison sentence to criminals who terrorize Delawareans in their homes,” Attorney General Biden said. “The tough penalties in this legislation reflect how seriously we take these crimes and will make offenders think twice before they threaten the peace and security of our families.”

Delaware State Police reported investigating nearly 50 cases of home invasion last year – 10 in New Castle County, 14 in Kent County and 24 in Sussex County. The trend has continued into 2012, with the most recent home invasion occurring in Milford earlier this week when a 63-year-old man was hit in the chest with a metal pole, according to state police.

“All of us should feel safe in our homes. When someone breaks in and threatens your life, it turns your world upside-down. Children are afraid to go to sleep and adults are worried about protecting their family and possessions,” said Heffernan, D-Wilmington South. “There really isn’t a crime in the code that addresses home invasions directly, so we are proposing a new criminal offense that essentially doubles the penalty for burglary. Home invasion is a serious crime, and it deserves serious consequences.

“Also, a lot of the victims being targeted in these home invasions are seniors, so the bill also carries additional penalties for criminals who target our most vulnerable population. We hope that this bill keeps these dangerous people off the streets and serves as a warning to others.”

The bill creates a new crime of home invasion, which is derived in part from an aggravated form of Delaware’s current burglary offenses. Home invasion would occur when a person enters or remains unlawfully in someone else’s home, engages in or attempts to engage in certain crimes of violence against an occupant of the home, including robbery, assault, kidnapping, rape, manslaughter and murder, and is either armed or injures a victim during the crime.

Currently, the most severe burglary charge, first-degree burglary, only applies to nighttime offenses.  It is a class C felony and carries a minimum mandatory prison sentence of two years for a first offense. Home invasion would be a class B felony and doubles the minimum mandatory sentence for a first offense to four years in prison. Home invasion also would carry a stiffer penalty for a second offense that occurs within five years of being released from prison for a first offense – from four years for burglary to six years for home invasion.

“Every citizen deserves to feel safe and secure in their home and it’s my hope that this will help accomplish that by treating this crime with the seriousness it deserves,” said Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, D-Wilmington North, the bill’s chief Senate co-sponsor.

“Home invaders not only take property, they terrorize residents and neighbors who wonder if they’ll be next. It’s my hope that as word about these increased penalties gets around, it will help curb this crime.”

The proposed home invasion criminal offense also would triple the mandatory prison sentence if the victim is a senior – 62 years old or older. Burglary carries a two-year minimum mandatory sentence, while a criminal convicted of home invasion against a senior would be imprisoned for at least six years. The punishment for second offenses against a senior would be doubled – from four years for burglary to eight years for home invasion.

“There can be no greater intrusion then to violate the sanctity of a person's home,” said Secretary of Safety and Homeland Security Lewis D. Schiliro. “The legislation being introduced today will send a profound and clear message that this form of terrorism will not be tolerated and will be dealt with in the strongest possible way.”

The bill will be filed in the House of Representatives next week.

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