Limits on power of judges weighed

Court considers authority to shorten sentences

Debate has gone on for decade

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

Maryland's highest court is weighing whether to impose limits for the first time on judges' authority to shorten the sentences of violent criminals - a controversial power that is highly unusual, if not unique, in the nation.

The proposal, scheduled for a hearing today at the Maryland Court of Appeals, would bar judges from cutting a violent offender's sentence more than five years after it was imposed.

Debate has raged for a decade in court and in the halls of the state legislature over the wide leeway judges have - an issue so thorny that the panel that recommends changes in court rules narrowly defeated the proposal this year but sent it to the Maryland Court of Appeals anyway.

The defense bar wants to preserve the judicial authority used to motivate good behavior among prisoners and encourage offenders to stick with drug treatment and pay restitution.

"The trial judge's authority to revise a sentence remains one of the most powerful incentives for a defendant's rehabilitation," Nancy S. Forster, deputy public defender, said in a recent letter to the Court of Appeals.

Prosecutors, however, say the modifications create an undue burden on victims and their families, shrink confidence in the court system and let offenders make an end run around the parole board.

The statewide prosecutors' organization, while supporting the current proposal, would prefer to leave judges with one year from the original sentencing date to cut a sentence.

The Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center is requesting no modifications in homicide cases.

"I'm optimistic and hopeful that something good will come out of this hearing," said Robert L. Dean, a deputy state's attorney for Prince George's County.

The Court of Appeals has wide latitude in making court rules, and if it wants to set new limits on judges, it can choose a time frame it wants.

"I think there is some hope that the judiciary will figure out the appropriate limits on this kind of discretion," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He has seen more restrictive bills targeting sentence revisions fail over the years. "If they don't, it will certainly be back, and the pressure for the General Assembly to take steps will be even greater," he said.

Each side points to cases they say bolster their position.

Those who want to restrict the judges' leeway cite cases in which violent felons were rewarded with shortened prison terms only to commit more crimes.

For example, Michael W. Sears, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing his estranged wife in Prince George's County, had his sentence reduced to 20 years largely on the strength of a psychiatrist who said he was unlikely to kill again. Last May - less than two years into parole - Sears killed his girlfriend.

But fueling the other side is a belief that without the possibility of a shorter sentence, some of those in prison might never be willing to testify in other cases where they might have information.

Edward Love Anderson was serving a sentence of life plus 10 years for a Baltimore County murder when he agreed to testify in 1993 and 1999 against a man accused of killing his ex-girlfriend and another woman. His testimony came in exchange for prosecutors backing his bid for a sentence reduction.

The proposal before the court today emerged last year from the Conference of Circuit Court Judges. Still, the opinion of judges around the state ran the gamut, said Prince George's County Administrative Judge William D. Missouri, vice chairman of the highly influential 16-member group.

The proposal that emerged would allow modifications past the five-year limit if the prosecutor and defense attorney agree.

The latest proposal excludes drug and white-collar crimes. Some victims of nonviolent crime say that is wrong, while some judges say the carrot of a lighter punishment is the best way to obtain restitution in such cases.

The proposal was voted down 11-10 by the judiciary's Rules Committee in January, but Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., committee chairman, wanted it sent to the Court of Appeals.

The judges also know that the legislature is keeping close watch on what action they take.

This year, the General Assembly held back on bills that would have imposed tighter limits on judges' discretion. But several legislators said they would push legislation if the judiciary did not limit judges' power on its own.

The state high court's head, Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, has indicated that he believes judges are ready to accept limits.

"I know the court will give very serious consideration to the recommendation of the Circuit Court judges," Murphy said.

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