Sentence reductions headed to top court

Panel advises against time limit for judges to cut violent criminals' terms

January 10, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A state court panel voted 11-10 yesterday against a proposal to restrict the nearly complete discretion judges have to shorten violent criminals' sentences, but sent the controversial issue to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, for a final decision.

Prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers both found a silver lining in what is simply an advisory vote by the court system's Rules Committee.

Prosecutors say they are closer in their decade-long quest to see time limits on sentence reductions. And relieved defense attorneys say they are glad to have another chance to preserve what they see as important judicial authority.

"The closeness of the vote shows just how difficult an issue it is," said Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., who is chairman of the committee and serves as the chief judge of Maryland's intermediate appeals court.

The committee voted against placing a five-year time limit from the date of an original sentence for a judge to decide whether to reduce a sentence in a violent crime. The panel agreed unanimously to forward the issue to Maryland's top court, which sets court rules, for a decision that could come this spring.

Murphy said the judicial panel "is not in a race" with the state legislature. But prosecutors vow to have an even more stringent measure introduced in the General Assembly session that begins Wednesday. Such bills have been introduced regularly, though all have been defeated.

"I would expect the bill will be introduced with a one-year limit and it will apply to all crimes," said William Katcef, an assistant prosecutor in Anne Arundel County who has testified in the legislature for the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association.

Under a decades-old court rule, there is no time limit on sentence reductions. Prosecutors complain that criminals with the longest prison terms for the most heinous crimes can wait more than a decade -- sometimes after they are turned down for parole -- before seeking a sentence reduction.

They argue that this puts an unfair emotional burden on victims and surviving relatives who are invited to testify at a sentence modification hearing.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said he was not entirely disappointed with yesterday's outcome because the five-year limit will be considered by the state's top court. Though it will lack a recommendation from the Rules Committee, the limit has the unanimous backing of the influential association of Circuit Court judges and a modicum of support from the prosecutors' association.

Defense lawyers see limits as prosecutor-driven and hope that if they die again in the legislature, they will lose steam inside the judiciary.

"Unlike our brothers and sisters on the other side of the courtroom, we really trust our judges," Leonard R. Stamm, president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Association, told the committee yesterday.

The State Deputy Public Defender Nancy S. Forster said after the meeting that the panel's action "buys us some time to see what the legislature is going to do."

Among opponents of a limit is Del. Joseph Vallario Jr., the powerful head of the House Judiciary Committee and Rules Committee member.

Defense lawyers argue that five years often is not enough time to see a defendant take steps toward reform, such as education and drug treatment.

But William D. Missouri, administrative judge for Prince George's County, said a five-year limit would help judges because those who heard the original case would be more likely to still be on the bench to rule on a sentence-reduction request.

"Speaking personally, I am tired of testifying every year before Mr. Vallario's committee. I want to end this," he said.

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