Rules board suggests deadline for judges to shorten sentences

March 10, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's judicial rules panel recommended yesterday that judges not be allowed to reduce criminals' sentences without proof that prosecutors have tried to notify the victims.

The proposal, which would tighten victim-notification provisions, was made less than a week before General Assembly committees are to hold hearings on bills that seek to limit the wide discretion judges have in cutting sentences.

The bills seek to impose a one-year limit on the time in which judges can reconsider their sentences. Under current law, Maryland's judges can reduce a sentence at any time, even decades after the original sentence has been imposed.

Lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and lawyers are divided on the issue of curbing the judges' power. Joseph F. Murphy Jr., Rules Committee chairman and chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals, said a judge's ability to revise sentences helps keep prisoners in line, encourages criminals to come forward in other cases, and is a powerful motivator for people to straighten out, especially those who need drug and alcohol treatment.

But crime victims, their families and many prosecutors say there must be a guarantee that painful cases do not return to court years later, unbeknownst to the victims, who might wish to protest a sentence reduction. Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the state, has said that judges would accept some time restriction.

The proposal, which goes to the Court of Appeals for a decision, would also require judges to explain in writing their reasons for reducing a sentence.

The issue has been kicking around the General Assembly for about six years. The bills will be heard Tuesday.

Yesterday, the judiciary's Rules Committee considered whether to propose a time limit for sentence modifications, but voted down the proposal.

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