No override challenge seen for sentence-reduction rule

May 12, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers expect to ask lawmakers next year to change a new state court rule that for the first time restricts the power of judges to reduce sentences.

The Maryland Court of Appeals decided Monday to bar judges from cutting sentences more than five years after they were imposed. Until July 1, when the rule takes effect, judges can reduce a sentence that was meted out decades ago.

Prosecutors, who lobbied for a decade for a time limit on sentence modifications, wanted a one-year cutoff, but backed the five-year proposal.

"We have not discussed this, but the likely scenario is that we will see how this plays out," said Calvert County State's Attorney Robert B. Riddle, president of the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association. "We are delighted with what happened, and we will give this an opportunity."

Defense lawyers are unlikely to ask legislators to override it. In the General Assembly session that just ended, a bill proposing the one-year limit that prosecutors sought was introduced. It died, as legislators said they would wait to see if the judiciary took action.

"Theoretically, the matter could be pursued in the legislature," Hyattsville lawyer Richard A. Finci, past president of the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys' Association, said yesterday. "I think the chances of that are slim to none."

He said the court's decision is a move toward the federal system that has removed other discretionary powers of judges, for example, in favor of mandatory sentences.

Neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers are sure how the new rules will play out. No comprehensive statistics exist on sentence modifications around the state, resulting in mostly anecdotal information.

A University of Baltimore Law Review article on a survey of judges said most sentence reductions are done within five years - in drunken driving, substance abuse and theft cases - and without objection from prosecutors. The survey was done by professors at the school, based on reporting from 76 of the state's more than 200 judges.

Prosecutors say the new rule will weed out the most egregious cases in which a violent offender, with failed appeals and parole denied, heads to court a decade or more later to seek a sentence reduction.

Defense lawyers say five years is too little time to assess progress of felons in violent crimes who try to better themselves with education and therapies, especially youths who get a five-year mandatory minimum term on a handgun violation.

Said Finci: "I think effectively what this does is limit reconsiderations to cases where there is drug involvement."

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