Judge sheds a little light on sentence reasoning

November 09, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

SAN DIEGO -- It's media-bashing day at the National Symposium on Sentencing.

The symposium's fourth general session is called "Public Opinion, the Media and Sentencing Policy." An eight-member panel had gathered to discuss the topic. The potshots at the media started early.

"Television coverage of the criminal justice system is titillating and superficial," said Professor Joseph Angotti of the University of Miami School of Communications.

"Television sensationalizes crime," said Judge Gerald Bruce Lee Virginia's Fairfax County Circuit Court. "Television and newspapers are interested only in ratings and circulation."

Ah, I thought, media-bashing. The first refuge of the scoundrel.

It took our own Judge Dana Levitz of Baltimore County's Circuit Court to bring things back into perspective. The problem isn't the media, it's fear of the media.

"Judges are afraid of the media and of talking to the media," Levitz said. "Most judges would prefer not to talk to the press, and that's a problem."

I tracked down Levitz during the lunch break. I figured I'd take his advice. If the public wants to know why and how judges determine sentences, why not ask one?

Judges and defense lawyers at the symposium railed against guidelines for sentencing. The consensus was that federal guidelines were a mess. But Levitz says Maryland is one of the few states with descriptive guidelines. Federal guidelines are proscriptive, which may be why they're a mess.

"Maryland's descriptive guidelines are great -- especially for new judges," Levitz said. Judges have to report every sentence they hand down and give a reason for going either above or below the sentence recommended in the guidelines. As an example, Levitz said that possession of a small amount of drugs might result in a sentence lower than the guidelines.

"What drives that is an inordinate amount of drug dealing," Levitz explained. "In Baltimore County the typical drug dealer is some user who's on a corner selling $10 to $12 worth. Say you got a kid, 19, with virtually no criminal record. He's selling. That's dealing. Judges usually try to fashion a sentence that may not be incarceration. You might give him five years and suspend all but 90 days. Give him a taste of what jail is like."

Maryland's guidelines, despite some advantages, "don't reflect the reality of Maryland sentencing practices," Levitz said.

Sentences might give the impression that judges and the criminal justice system aren't tough enough on crime.

But "it's not a question of being soft on crime," Levitz said. "The public isn't stupid. They're offended and afraid about crime. You can explain to the public that you can punish and change a first-time offender. If you explain that in a way that people can understand, they can accept that."

All of us, Levitz said, had best accept that the link between drugs and crime is especially vexing.

"It's safe to say that 90 percent of cases I see there's some substance abuse involved, either drugs or alcohol," Levitz said. "We have to come up with another approach. What we're doing is clearly not working." Even drug treatment may not be the panacea some have touted it to be.

"Some people need to be locked up because there's not a damn thing you can do for them," the judge continued. "We have to look at treatment vs. reality. Treatment for everybody is not realistic." Some drug users, Levitz has observed, don't really want to change.

He cited as an example a 41-year-old heroin addict who had been on the stuff since he was 18. He appeared before Levitz on a first-time possession charge. The judge gave him a four-year suspended sentence with the provision that he get a job and treatment. Soon the guy was back before him for not reporting to his probation officer.

"My policy is you violate probation, you go away from here," Levitz said. But he made an exception and ordered the guy to another treatment program and to get a job. He appeared before Levitz again on Halloween. He hadn't been to treatment. He had no job. His defense attorney asked Levitz what the sense was of sending the guy to jail.

"It makes no sense whatsoever except that there's no other option," Levitz told the lawyer. So off the guy went, leaving Levitz with this sobering thought.

"Substance abuse fuels the criminal justice system. We haven't found the right approach."

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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