Sentence reduction limit proposed

Md. judges' panel considers rule giving violent offenders 5 years to seek shorter term

January 09, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

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 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 contend that the lack of a deadline leaves victims' families with no certainty that a sentence is final.

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 that would set 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 panel, which squabbled about restrictions three years ago, will vote today. Its decision will be a recommendation to the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, which makes the rules.

Missouri 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.

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