Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran said Friday that he has asked his deputy to review drunken driving dispositions in Howard County courts to determine if judges are being too lenient.
Curran said he asked Deputy Attorney General Dennis M. Sweeney to look into sentencing patterns here for eight county judges following a story Oct. 14 in The Howard County Sun that detailed judges' sentencing practices.
The story reported that about 60 percent of drunken drivers convicted in Howard County were given a sentence of probation before judgment (PBJ), which means a judge set the conviction aside and the driver received no points against his driving record for the offense.
Judges in Howard County used PBJ in drunken driving cases at least twice as often as judges in the majority of Maryland counties.
"I don't have control over what judges do," Curran said. "But as the top law enforcement officer in the state, I certainly have a right to express an opinion on this."
A PBJ sentence "is appropriate under certain circumstances, but it should not be routine," Curran said. He said it concerned him that drunken drivers might not be getting tough treatment from judges in some counties.
Curran said he would not comment on the appropriateness of sentencing patterns by Howard County judges until Sweeney has had time to interview prosecutors and accumulate information. He said he will have learned enough to comment on the situation in about two weeks.
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Michael D. Rexroad echoed some of Curran's concerns.
"It used to be that the PBJ was a rarity . . . but even in the past five years, that has changed," said Rexroad, who is chief prosecutor of Howard County's Circuit Court. The use of the PBJ is almost guaranteed for first-time offenders in DWI cases and is even used for first offenders in some drug cases, he said.
"We're considering what we can do as prosecutors in both the courtroom and legislatively," he added.
Rexroad said the use of PBJ sentences in both alcohol- and drug-related cases would be a matter of discussion this year for the Legislative Committee of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association.
The county's eight district and circuit court judges could not be reached for comment late Friday.
Michael A. Weal, top prosecutor in the county's District Court, where the most PBJ sentences are handed out, said he does not think PBJ is being used inappropriately by Howard County judges.
He thinks first offenders should be given the benefit of a PBJ, particularly if they are given stringent conditions of probation as well, such as mandatory alcohol treatment and counseling.
Weal said he is most concerned about repeat DWI offenders who are not dealt with harshly.
"My problem is that multiple offenders do not get harsh enough sentences," he said. He said even second offenders should be sent to jail routinely.
The Howard County Sun's story also reported that of the more than 2,000 people found guilty of driving drunk in Howard County last year -- including some drivers with as many as three prior convictions -- fewer than 8 percent got any jail time. Statewide, about 15 percent of people convicted of drunken driving in District Court and more than 30 percent of those convicted in Circuit Court were ordered to jail last year.
Howard County judges typically fined drunken drivers $100 to $500, and two judges routinely chose not to fine drunken drivers at all. The state allows fines up to $1,000 for first and second offenders, and $2,000 for those with two or more prior convictions.
Anthony J. Pung, a founding member of the county chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the group intends to distribute information about sentencing patterns and needed changes in state law to all state legislators this fall.