Judges' Accountability, The Homeless Draw Attention

Judicial Reformsquashed In Committee

February 16, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

ANNAPOLIS — Carroll Del. Richard C. Matthews knows from experience how difficultit is to push judicial reforms past a lawyer-dominated committee, but says he hasn't been deterred.

Saying the public views the judicial system as too soft on criminals, the Republican testified Thursdayin support of his plan to make judges more accountable for sentencesthey hand down and limit plea bargaining.

But once again, the House Judiciary Committee, on which the Hampstead tire shop owner serves, quickly dismissed both initiatives Friday.

Nobody opposed Matthews' bill that would have required the state Administrative Office of the Courts to compile and maintain a centralized register listing judges' decisions for public review.

But the committee voted against it, 17-2, citing the estimated $158,000 and five employees required to establish and administer the register. Also, Matthews surmised, the lawyers on the panel are reluctant to implement changes unless judges support the legislation.

Under the plan, the register would have listed under the name of each judge:

*For the Court of Appeals, all death penalty appeals in which the judge participates.

* For circuit courts, all cases involving crimes of violence over which the judge has presided in non-jury trials; and,

* For district courts, all cases involving drunken-driving of fenses over which the judge has presided.

Matthews told the committee elected judges should be treated just as other elected officials, whose voting and financial records are public record. While Matthews acknowledges that the public can look up a judge's decision and sentence in a particular case, he says the record-keeping system is too diffused to provide easy access.

"The cost of keeping such a record is dwarfed by the cost of crime unleashed on the public by judges who consistently impose lenient sentences," he said of the bill, similar to Rhode Island law.

A state assistant public defender and a Baltimore prosecutor opposed Matthews' other bill, which would have prohibited plea bargaining in cases where a defendant is charged with a violent crime for which he previously had been convicted. A defendant charged for the first time with a violent crime would keep plea bargainrights.

Matthews has sponsored the bill seven times since 1983, but the committee quashed each attempt, including this year's, 18-1.

Plea bargaining is when prosecutors and defense attorneys negotiatean agreement for a guilty plea for the defendant before the case goes to trial. Plea bargains often result in convictions and sentences that are less than the maximum allowed by law.

Opponents said plea bargain restrictions would clog court dockets and raise court costs.

A fiscal analysis of the legislation concluded that it could result in increases in fiscal 1993 of $1 million in court costs and $2.4 million for longer jail sentences.

Matthews argued tougher prosecuting and sentencing would reduce violent crime in the long run. He said the public considers plea bargains "a miscarriage of justice" and views the criminal justice system with "distrust and disdain."

"Guilt and innocence have taken a back seat to 'make a deal' justice," hesaid. "As I see it, there can be no justification for the plea bargaining away of every crime from murder to mayhem and rape to armed robbery."

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