Prosecutors want no 'lenient' sentences until guidelines are aired

January 18, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Charging that new sentencing guidelines are too lenient, a group of Maryland prosecutors will ask judges not to use the guidelines until the issue is aired at public hearings.

"With the citizens of this country being as concerned as they are with crime . . . the concept of issuing guidelines that in fact become more lenient is just ludicrous," Scott G. Patterson, president of the State's Attorneys Association of Maryland, said yesterday.

The guidelines, crafted by a group of Maryland judges, call for tougher sentences for some crimes, including manslaughter. But Mr. Patterson, Talbot County's state's attorney, and other prosecutors object to changes in the guidelines for crimes such as drug possession, rape and robbery.

Supporters of the guidelines, which are to be applied to crimes committed after Jan. 2, say the changes will have no effect on sentences issued in Maryland courtrooms. They note that the guidelines are nonbinding, and are "descriptive" revisions made to bring the numbers in line with what is already happening in courtrooms.

"Those judges who think the guidelines are too low for a particular offense will go beyond the guidelines and those who think they're too strict will go below the guidelines," said Joseph H. H. Kaplan, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court and chairman of the board that approved the changes.

Judges involved in the revision say they were aware of the political pitfalls of their move. But the Maryland Sentencing Guidelines Advisory Board decided, in a 4-3 vote, to adjust the guidelines to fit a statistical portrait of the last decade's sentences.

"It's not politically in tune to lower sentences, and people that are running for office like to tell the public that everyone is going to get life in prison without parole, that that's the answer to the crime problem," said Judge Kaplan.

What's more, the fact that Maryland imprisons more of its citizens than do most states -- a recent study showed Maryland has the 11th highest rate of incarceration in the nation -- shows that its judges are not soft on crime, he said.

But Mr. Patterson said his group favors nonbinding guidelines that are based not on current practice but on what administrative judges, with input from the public and prosecutors, think sentences should be. Prosecutors throughout the state huddled last week to discuss their opposition to the new guidelines.

Prosecutors fear that lower guidelines could lead to more lenient sentences because the guidelines are widely used as a baseline for plea negotiations, said Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms.

Eugene M. Lerner, an Anne Arundel County judge who voted

against the changes, said the board should not have felt obliged to defer its own opinion in favor of following the statistics.

"If that's so, what do we need a committee for? Let the man at [the Administrative Office of the Courts] compute them," he said.

But other judges feared that an outcry from a public uneducated in the subtleties of sentencing could prompt a movement for binding guidelines -- a system used in federal courts but widely criticized for limiting judges' discretion.

Were that to happen, a judge's opinions and experience might become almost irrelevant at sentencing, said Dana M. Levitz, a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge who voted in favor of the changes.

"All you'll need is a computer," he said. "Stick in the card and spew out the sentence."

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