A shift in Maryland's prison sentencing guidelines has caused concern in Baltimore that the change - which might be a positive move in some areas of the state - has resulted in shorter sentences for violent offenders.
The Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, which issues the guidelines, has agreed to review the change at the urging of Baltimore District Judge Timothy Doory, a member of the commission.
Doory said he acted in response to an alarm raised recently by city State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who believes the change in guidelines has backfired in Baltimore.
"Any time you have a reduction in sentencing for violent crime, it is of great concern to us," Jessamy said. "Our whole thrust is to keep violent criminals off the street for as long as possible."
The commission changed the guidelines for assault cases last year, making them lesser crimes carrying lighter sentences.
Jessamy said that contributed to a shortening of sentences in felony gun cases handled by her office's gun unit. The average sentence decreased from 11 years in 2000 to eight years in 2001.
She said she has not done an analysis to show exactly how many cases it has affected, but offered an example: A person who is convicted of first-degree assault today could get a sentence of four to nine years under the guidelines. Two years ago, that person could have been sentenced to 12 to 20 years.
The rationale for the switch, say commission members, is that judges across the state were sentencing below the guidelines for assaults, and the commission wanted to adjust them to fit sentences judges were issuing.
The commission was created by the General Assembly in 1996 to make sentences across the state more consistent.
"The intent is uniformity. We should treat people across the state the same, or as close as possible," said Baltimore Circuit Judge John C. Themelis, a commission member. "We want to make sure across the state sentences are based on the crime and a defendant's background, not based on race, gender and national origin."
Michael Connelly, executive director of the commission, called the voluntary guidelines a road atlas for sentencing.
The commission receives a report every time a judge sentences someone to prison. If judges deviate from the guidelines, they must submit a written explanation.
The system works fine in areas like Carroll County, said Carroll County prosecutor Clarence W. "Buddy" Beall III.
"I haven't seen any significant impact here," Beall said of the guideline changes.
But in Baltimore, prosecutors say, there is a mix of high rates of violent crime, skittish witnesses and juries that tend to be reluctant to convict on murder or attempted-murder charges.
In the past, prosecutors often charged violent offenders with attempted murder and assault, and got only an assault conviction from a jury trial or a plea agreement.
They then relied on stiff sentences for assault to keep the offenders off the street. That tactic is no longer as effective since guidelines in assault cases have changed, they say.
Prosecutors also say they have less of a bargaining chip during plea agreements because assault charges have less value in terms of prison time.
Doory said he realized that the change might have had an unintended effect on Baltimore after an article appeared in The Sun last month showing that jail time for felony gun crimes had dropped in the past two years.
The article quoted Jessamy as saying the change is part of the reason criminals who use handguns are more likely to get a lighter sentence than two years ago.
"Pat made a comment that some decisions we made had substantial effect on Baltimore City," Doory said. "I asked the commission to look into it."
Connelly said he put it on the agenda for the commission's next meeting, in September.