A state court panel will consider today whether to end the nearly complete discretion judges have to shorten criminals' sentences - a restriction that prosecutors and victim advocates have sought for a decade over the objection of defense lawyers and some judges.
The judiciary's little-known Rules Committee will take up a proposal to place a five-year limit from the date of the original sentence on the time judges have to reduce sentences for violent crimes.
There is no time limit - a situation that opponents say is unique to Maryland - and criminals have returned to the courtroom more than a decade after being imprisoned to ask judges to shorten their sentences.
But some judges fear that if the judiciary does not rein itself in, lawmakers will impose even more drastic restrictions than the five-year limit being considered today.
"We have been standing with our fingers in the dike on this for a number of years," said Prince George's County Circuit Administrative Judge William D. Missouri, a Rules Committee member.
Prosecutors say the lack of a deadline leaves victims' families with no certainty that a sentence is final. John Shifflett, for example, was flabbergasted when nine years after his sister's killer was sentenced to 40 years in prison, he was asked if he wanted to attend and testify at a November hearing to shorten Gregory Byrd's sentence.
That the family had to be contacted and a public hearing held is the result of a 2001 judicial rule enacted due to a furor over occasional private deals that excluded victims.
"It totally floored me, my whole family. I just think it is very cruel," said Shifflett, who saw Byrd repeatedly shoot Loretta Shifflett in the doorway of her family's Glen Burnie home, leaving her to die in her mother's arms. "They should not have the right, period. The sentence is the sentence. Then, the family, even if they don't agree with it, they can come to terms with it."
Sentenced to 40 years for the 1993 murder of his former fiancee, Byrd filed the paperwork for a sentence modification within the required 90 days of his sentencing in 1994. He asked the judge to hold the paperwork until he was ready to return to court to show the judge that he had changed his ways.
By the time he asked for and received a hearing, the sentencing judge had retired. A new judge rejected Byrd's request, but not before the victim's family had gone through the emotional upheaval of a hearing.
Byrd's attorney, T. Joseph Touhey, is among the defense lawyers who don't want to see judges lose their discretion in considering sentence reductions.
"I am a strong believer in relying on the discretion and common sense of the sitting jurist," he said. "There might be a case that deserves a sentence modification 10 years down the road."
In the past, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Court of Appeals has said he believes that judges are willing to accept some limits on their power to reduce sentences. Legislators have privately advised judges that it would be beneficial if the judiciary could handle the issue on its own. Bills setting a one-year limit frequently have been introduced - and killed - in the General Assembly.
Still, members of the 27-member Rules Committee say they cannot predict how the committee, which squabbled about time restrictions three years ago, will vote today. Its decision would be a recommendation to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, which makes the rules.
Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., the Rules Committee chairman, said the possibility of trimming a sentence can encourage a convict to seek education, job training, drug treatment and therapy. It also can help officials control behavior in prison, he said, and encourage white-collar thieves to repay their victims.
Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a Rules Committee member, opposes the restrictions. A lawyer whose practice includes criminal defense work, Vallario said yesterday that he favors more study and hearings.
The Maryland State's Attorneys' Association has decided not to oppose the five-year restriction, which would include an exception allowing a hearing after that deadline if prosecutors and defense agree.
"We believe it is a positive step in the right direction," said Robert B. Riddle, state's attorney for Calvert County and president of the association. "Our position has been and continues to be that we would like to see a one-year limit on all cases."
Some of the group's members, such as Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, think even one year is too long.
But Missouri, the Prince George's County judge, said five years is a sensible limit because it allows time to get a criminal into a drug treatment program. Beyond that time, the possibility of being unable to locate the victims increases and the judge who heard the case originally may have retired.
"This would strike a balance where we can address the needs of someone who may need to be reconsidered for rehabilitation but still be sensitive to the victims," Missouri said.