A reasonable expectation

May 21, 2004

VICTIMS' RIGHTS advocates have finally prevailed in their drive to limit the freedom of Maryland judges to reduce a defendant's sentence. And that is as it should be.

Marylanders have a right to expect that a sentence imposed at trial will stand. It's not an unreasonable expectation, but a few judges in some well-publicized cases in recent years have allowed convicted murderers to skip out on their sentences, leaving victims and their families aghast and upset.

The state's highest court last week adopted a rules change that gives trial judges only five years from the imposition of sentence to reduce it. Until now, Maryland has been unique in the country in the discretion it gives judges to reconsider a sentence. Judges could reduce a sentence at any time -- and without having to explain why, an authority that stemmed from a five-decade-old court rule.

And it was only in recent years that prosecutors were required to notify victims of a defendant's request for a change in his sentence. Since at least 2000, lawmakers have tried to curb a judge's power in this area. Maryland judges also wrestled with the issue but failed to act.

Supporters of the rule change say it will ease the burden on prosecutors who have found themselves scrambling to find witnesses and other evidence years after trial so they could oppose a defendant's request to modify his sentence. Judges could only reduce a sentence, not increase it.

Defense attorneys and some judges opposed the rules change because it places even more restrictions on a judge's discretion. They argued that the five-year window would work against a violent offender with a long sentence who had turned his life around over time. But defendants with good records can and should make their case to the state parole commission -- and the parole commission should be adequately staffed to handle the caseload. Defendants who have been wrongly convicted or illegally sentenced won't be precluded from seeking judicial relief.

There is a troubling aspect, though, to the rules change: It was based on anecdotal evidence, examples of cases where a convicted murderer was released early and killed again, a rapist permitted to clear his conviction after serving some time in jail, a secret deal to free a murderer after only 71 days in prison.

No data were presented to show that a widespread problem exists. The rules change appears to have less to do with addressing the victims' concerns than with pre-empting state lawmakers from restricting a judge's discretion even further by imposing a one-year limit on sentence reconsiderations.

Nevertheless, victims do deserve some finality in a case, and the rules change will give them some relief. It's a workable compromise. To be clear, the rules change won't prohibit the precipitous release of a violent offender. But it does put judges on notice that if they value their discretion, they must act judiciously.

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