Term-cutting power of judges may suffer

1-year limit sought on reconsiderations

March 14, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Maryland judges would lose some of their power to reduce criminal sentences long after a defendant's trial under legislation being pushed in the General Assembly by prosecutors and victims-rights advocates.

The bill would prohibit judges from reconsidering many criminal sentences after a year had passed.

Backers say the bill is necessary to stop judges' little-known practice of quietly reducing sentences they have handed out, sometimes long after a trial and often without the knowledge of the victim in the case.

"The purpose is to eliminate a level of uncertainty that exists in the state of Maryland," Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's Democrat and chief sponsor of the bill, told the House Judiciary Committee yesterday.

A committee appointed by Maryland's judiciary voted last week against a change in court rules that would limit judges' power to reduce sentences. The full Court of Appeals could overrule that decision.

In the meantime, the matter rests with the General Assembly, which has been reluctant in the past to curb the power of judges.

Last year, the House Judiciary Committee killed a similar bill, and a round of questions yesterday made it clear that the proposal might again be in trouble.

Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chairman of the court rules committee and chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, told lawmakers that as a trial judge in Baltimore County, he had often used the possibility of a reduced sentence to prod a defendant to behave in jail or while on probation.

"I would often say to a defendant, `I'll give you a hearing after your first parole hearing and see how you're doing,'" Murphy said.

Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat, said he was worried about prisoners who might take more than a year to settle down in prison and begin rehabilitating themselves. A judge, he suggested, should be able to reward a well-behaved prisoner with a reduced sentence.

"I'm not convinced yet" about the need for the legislation, Burns said.

There are no limits in Maryland law or in the judiciary's rules on when a judge may reduce a criminal sentence, unusual power that was highlighted in articles by the Washington Post this year. Most other states impose restrictions on when a judge may reduce a sentence or in what kind of cases, said prosecutors and judges who testified yesterday.

Along with prosecutors, several crime victims and relatives testified about instances in which judges reduced a sentence or considered doing so, long after the trial.

Brown said that after hearing widespread concern about the bill, he was proposing several amendments that would allow judges to retain much of their power.

Brown said he would accept an amendment that would allow judges to reconsider their sentences in cases in which a defendant is sentenced to complete drug rehabilitation or mental health treatment, even it those treatments ran longer than a year. He said judges should also have freedom to reduce sentences - with no time limit - in cases in which defendants provide information in another criminal prosecution.

Brown said the bill would keep the one-year limit for reconsideration of terms for violent crimes.

Jack B. Johnson, the Prince George's County state's attorney, told the panel that curbing reconsiderations would give victims a sense of finality and would restore some confidence in the judicial system. "There is tremendous abuse in the system," he said. "It smacks of back-room deals sometimes."

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler urged lawmakers to step in, asserting that the judiciary would never move to restrict its own power.

"To me, that's kind of like asking the elephant to pass the peanuts," he said. "They're not going to do it."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.