State judges' power limited

Rule bars shortening any sentence after 5 years

`It will finalize things'

Victims advocates support Court of Appeals change

May 11, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland's highest court adopted yesterday the first restrictions on the nearly unbridled power of state judges to shorten the sentences of criminals, barring judges from cutting any sentence more than five years after it was imposed.

The new court rule, which will take effect July 1, goes further than the original proposal that was before the Maryland Court of Appeals. The measure was adopted over strong opposition from the criminal defense bar.

It covers all offenses, making no distinction between violent and nonviolent crimes. And it does not allow judges to clip a sentence past five years, even if prosecutors and defense lawyers agree on it. The original proposal was restricted to violent offenses, and it allowed for a sentence reduction after the five-year cutoff if prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed to seek it.

Prosecutors have been pushing to curb the sentencing powers of state judges for about a decade. They complained that sentence modifications created emotional turmoil for victims and their families; left prosecutors scrambling to find victims, witnesses and files two decades after a sentence was imposed; and sometimes landed cases before new judges because the one familiar with the case had retired.

"We are pleased with this covering all crimes. It makes sense," said Glenn F. Ivey, state's attorney for Prince George's County. He said he was unsure if the rule would satisfy prosecutors around the state, whose organization, the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association, sought a one-year time limit.

Victim advocates also said they were glad the court ordered the changes.

"I think it will finalize things for victims," said Russell P. Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center Inc., the state's largest advocacy organization for victims. He said this also had become an issue of public confidence in the courts.

Until now, judges in Maryland had a highly unusual, if not unique, power that was expanding in controversy amid widely publicized cases in which violent felons given shortened sentences left prison and committed more crimes. In one recent case, Michael W. Sears had 10 years cut from a 30-year sentence for slaying his estranged wife in Prince George's County. Last May, less than two years into his parole, he killed his girlfriend and later killed himself in prison.

Opponents of limiting sentence modifications said the carrot of a shortened sentence encouraged rehabilitation, prompting criminals to complete job training, study programs and take advantage of drug treatment. The promise of reducing a sentence also has been considered useful in controlling prisoners' behavior, getting white-collar criminals to make restitution and encouraging felons to testify in other criminal cases.

"I thought it was a slippery slope, and I still do," said Maryland Public Defender Nancy S. Forster, who opposed the rule change. She added that with several judges voicing no objection to a one-year time limit, criminal defense lawyers might find themselves fighting a renewed bid for that in the General Assembly.

The court also was aware that lawmakers were watching. Legislators took no action this year on bills for a one-year limit, but said the pressure on them to act would be fiercer next year if the court did not set limits.

The initial proposal came from the Conference of Circuit Court Judges, a 16-member body that is highly influential within the judiciary.

The Court of Appeals, which sets court policy, voted 6-1 in favor of the restrictions. Judge Dale R. Cathell opposed the change, saying it "does not sufficiently limit that power." Cathell said he considers sentence modifications to improve prison behavior unconstitutional because a judge is "pardoning or paroling the prisoner," a power that lies with the parole commission and governor.

Cutting a sentence to nudge a felon to testify is wrong because it makes a judge, who should be impartial, an ally of a prosecutor, he said. He also feared that inevitably a judge would cut a sentence for an improper reason, damaging the credibility of the courts.

Charles F. Shilling, whose mother, Leonette Mary Shilling, was murdered in 1979 in Anne Arundel County, said he was "absolutely" pleased with the court's action and its decision yesterday to look into amending related court rules so that more victims' families do not end up like his.

"I think five years is acceptable," said Shilling, who has been to court repeatedly over two decades to oppose shortening the life term imposed on his mother's killer.

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