ANNAPOLIS – Making criminals serve their full sentences should be a priority in restructuring the state’s sentencing guidelines.
That was the prevailing opinion — both from the public and experts in criminal justice — during a public hearing Thursday.
The hearing was the first in a series by the new Maryland Commission on Criminal Sentencing, which will make recommendations to the governor and General Assembly on how criminals are punished in the state.
The commission heard from about a dozen people. Truth in sentencing and alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders were the most popular suggestions. Drug treatment was described as an essential component of all corrections programs. And speakers also emphasized the need to educate the public about the criminal justice system and how changes would effect them.
“The public’s perception of our sentencing is a legal fiction,” said Russell Butler, a Prince George’s County attorney. “We believe if you make sure the sentence that is imposed by the court is the sentence the offender is going to serve, the public will have more integrity in the system.”
Prisoners often serve less than their sentences because they receive early parole, work release credits and good time credits. For example, in Maryland, a prisoner earns 20 days of good time credit for every 30 days served. That makes it difficult for judges to know how long any given offender will serve in all but death penalty cases.
Under federal guidelines, truth in sentencing means that offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, parole is abolished and good time credits are reduced.
Commission Chairman John F. McAuliffe, a retired Court of Appeals judge, said that if judges impose shorter sentences with confidence that the offender will serve them, they will both practice truth in sentencing and prevent prison overcrowding.
Speakers suggested creating a separate sentencing system for drug offenders. Several said they would like to place non-violent offenders in programs like boot camps, home detention and drug treatment.
“Community corrections and local corrections work well in Maryland, if they are properly funded and staffed,” said Neil Dorsey, president of the Maryland Criminal Justice Association.
However, he said not enough judges and prosecutors send inmates to these types of programs.
Many agreed that conventional prison remains the solution for violent offenders, but warned that prisons need money.
“We want people locked up if they need to be locked up,” said Barry Stanton, vice president of the Maryland Corrections Administrators Association. “Public safety is our No. 1 concern. If you’re going to lock them up, give us the funding to maintain our bed facilities.”
Many speakers supported creating more structured sentencing guidelines and making judges explain in writing when they impose sentences outside of those guidelines. In Maryland, only Circuit Court currently has sentencing guidelines, and those haven’t been revised since 1987.
However, there is concern that minorities may be getting longer sentences than whites with similar criminal backgrounds facing the same charges. McAuliffe said more structured guidelines would help decrease sentencing disparity.
The commission’s next step is to conduct a statewide scientific opinion poll on sentencing reform. Then they will hold more hearings throughout the state. They must have their recommendations ready by Sept. 30.
Baltimore County District Judge Alexander Wright Jr., a commission member, said the witnesses’ suggestions were consistent with the commission’s ideas. “Nothing was really a surprise,” he said of the hearing. “It’s good to see the commission is going along with the what the public wants and needs.” -30-