Bill called threat to law

Mandatory sentencing viewed as weakened

prosecutors urge veto

`Intelligent legislation'

Panel could reduce terms

Md. judges also oppose the measure

April 23, 1999|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

Outraged state prosecutors are urging the governor to veto a little-noticed bill passed by the General Assembly which, they say, would significantly weaken the state's mandatory sentences for violent criminals.

The measure allows a three-judge panel to reduce, by a unanimous vote, mandatory sentences for violent criminals such as handgun users, two-time drug dealers and "three-time losers" who are repeat offenders of violent crimes.

"It is such a farce," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra A. O'Connor. "It takes away the most effective tool for prosecutors."

The bill, which passed overwhelmingly in the General Assembly, also has drawn opposition from Maryland judges, including Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, because of a provision they see as a procedural nightmare.

But proponents of the measure, being reviewed by the governor's office, say it would only be used in rare cases in which mandatory sentences are too harsh for the crime.

Mandatory sentences have been enacted by the legislature during the past 30 years in response to growing violent crime and drug dealing. Prosecutors have long supported mandatory sentences, while judges generally dislike them because they take away their power to consider each sentence individually.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said the bill runs contrary to a consistent move toward mandatory sentencing laws by the legislature.

"I don't think most of the legislature knew what they were doing," Weathersbee said.

This week, Joseph I. Cassilly, Harford County state's attorney and president of the Maryland State's Attorneys Association, wrote to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, asking him to veto the bill.

But the measure's chief sponsor, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a defense lawyer for 30 years, said it would provide a badly needed escape valve for the rare cases that do not warrant mandatory sentences.

The Prince George's County Democrat noted the conviction of Nathaniel Hurt, an elderly Baltimore man imprisoned for shooting a 13-year-old boy who was with a group of children vandalizing Hurt's car.

Hurt was ordered to serve a mandatory five-year sentence for using a handgun during a violent crime, but the governor commuted his sentence after 14 months.

"He thought he was protecting his home," Vallario said. "He went to jail. There was no relief available."

He said the bill "puts discretion in the hands of the three-judge panel."

The legislation originated with the state's Commission on Criminal Sentencing, a 19-member committee of judges, lawyers, a criminal justice expert and a victim's advocate.

Commission Chairman John F. McAuliffe, a retired Court of Appeals judge, said the suggestion to reduce mandatory sentences came from Vallario, also a commission member.

McAuliffe called the bill "intelligent legislation."

"It was fully debated, and it was felt by a substantial majority that it was a very good escape valve," he said. "If it ever appears the judges were abusing this escape valve, the legislature can take it away in a nanosecond."

Domenic Iamele, president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said he was unaware of the bill, but "it's a good thing," especially when applied to drug dealers who are not violent, but must serve mandatory sentences that are costly to taxpayers.

Judges are largely upset about a clause in the bill requiring judges to declare in open court the minimum time a criminal will serve in prison.

"There's no way we can figure out in advance how much time a person's going to serve," said Bell, the state's chief judge.

McAuliffe said it should be simple for a judge to figure out a minimum sentence for violent offenders because Maryland law requires them to serve at least half their sentences.

But Dana M. Levitz, a Baltimore County Circuit judge who trains new Maryland judges on sentencing, said a judge would have no idea what minimum sentence a criminal might serve.

"That is up to the parole board, and the parole board changes the requirements," he said.

Levitz said that even though Maryland law requires violent criminals to serve at least half their sentences, they can get extra time off for prison work and good behavior.

"A judge is going to say in open court, `You're not eligible for parole for 10 years,' " he said. "What happens when the victim sees that person out on the street in three years? The judge's going to look like an idiot."

Circuit Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr., administrative judge for Baltimore and Harford counties, said the "truth in sentencing" bill is "a nice idea, but most of the time the judge is going to be wrong."

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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