WASHINGTON – Maryland’s federal courts handed down some of the nation’s harshest sentences between 1993 and 1997, according to a federal records database.
Federal sentences in Maryland averaged 76 months in 1996 and 74 months in 1997, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. That was more than two years longer than the national average of 48 months in 1996 and 47 months in 1997.
But while Maryland sentence lengths were in the top 10 percent of the nation’s 94 federal districts, the state was in the bottom third when it came to the number of cases prosecuted and the percent of convictions per capita from 1993 to 1997, said TRAC.
Maryland’s U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia disputed the TRAC statistics, saying that the prosecution and conviction numbers particularly do not reflect the real work of her office.
Others say that, if the TRAC numbers are true, they merely demonstrate Battaglia’s tendency to prosecute more complex cases. TRAC, a non-partisan service based at Syracuse University, uses annual Justice Department reports to compile its rankings of U.S. attorneys.
“The Department of Justice statistics are like the Department of Defense statistics under (Defense Secretary Robert) McNamara during the Vietnam War,” said Jefferson Gray, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland. “The average number of cases is not a reflection of how hard people are working. Maryland is considered one of the better U.S. Attorney’s offices.”
Battaglia has served as the state’s top federal prosecutor since 1993, when she was appointed by President Clinton. She oversees more than 60 assistant U.S. attorneys who bring civil and criminal cases to trial at federal courthouses in Baltimore and Greenbelt. The federal district includes the entire state.
In response to the TRAC sentencing statistics, Battaglia said her office was not necessarily pushing for harsher punishments but chose cases based on merit.
“We don’t operate without discretion,” she said. “We don’t prosecute people if we can’t meet our burden of proof.”
But at least one defense attorney said Battaglia was taking a hard-line approach on sentencing, although it is the judge who ultimately determines sentence length.
“Prosecutors have more say now than they used to,” said David Irwin of the firm Irwin, Green and Dexter in Baltimore. “Lynne takes advantage of that as is her right and directive, sometimes using the guidelines to be too strict.”
Battaglia has supported tougher state sentences, and her office joined with state and federal agents to implement “Disarm,” which calls for harsh sentences on repeat offenders with a history of violence and drug trafficking.
All the same, Battaglia said she does not have a policy of going for the toughest sentences every time.
“The thing I believe we have to be is consistent,” she said. “We take the sentencing guidelines and follow them to the letter.”
Consistency has also marked the types of cases brought by Battaglia’s office from 1993 to 1997, with a concentration on narcotics cases, white-collar crime and weapons violations, according to TRAC.
Of the 3,514 prosecutions filed during the five-year period, a little more than 26 percent were for drug-related charges, about 10 percent were weapons- related and nearly 8 percent were bank robberies. The 2,279 convictions won by Battaglia’s office during that period broke down roughly along the same lines.
Officials who are familiar with the workings of the prosecutor’s office — including two of Battaglia’s former employers — said her priorities have mostly been on target.
“She’s been very strong on drug prosecutions, and rightly so,” said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who was Battaglia’s boss from 1988 to 1991.
Curran lauded the office’s work on environmental crimes and Medicare fraud, as did Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, for whom Battaglia was chief of staff from 1991 until her appointment as U.S. attorney.
“Her (Battaglia’s) office set up a Medicare Fraud strike force, with 10 FBI agents, to find and prosecute those who file fraudulent Medicare bills,” Mikulski said in a prepared statement. “So far, they’ve recovered more than $20 million in Maryland alone.”
Donna Bucella, director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, cited several strengths of Battaglia’s office: gun prosecutions, health fraud, fighting violent crime and Internet exploitation of children, environmental law and government contracting.
Since 1993, Battaglia’s office has prosecuted 650 to 761 cases each year, earning convictions in 69 to 75 percent of those cases, according to TRAC. That puts the Maryland district in the bottom third of federal prosecutors in both counts, dipping as low as 83rd in prosecutions and 70th in conviction rate.
Battaglia called TRAC’s statistics “misleading and inaccurate” due to their definition of which cases qualify as prosecutions and how cases resolved by plea are tallied.
But her own numbers, while they do not compare her office to the rest of the nation, are no more flattering. Statistics from Battaglia’s office show a range of 398 to 465 prosecutions between 1995 and 1998, with a high conviction rate of 77.4 percent in 1998 and a low of 59.6 in 1997.
The numbers do not tell the whole story though, said Bucella.
In fiscal 1998, for example, Battaglia’s office collected more than $20.8 million in fees for civil and criminal cases involving fraud, environmental violations and other infractions. In 1996, it collected $24 million, which, “for an office that size, that’s a very, very proud number,” Bucella said.
Battaglia notes that she also set up environmental and health-care fraud hotlines to make it easier to report crimes, and put together a program to educate parents about the dangers of the Internet.
Battaglia, who likely has at least another two years in office, said she does not see any reason to change course now.
“Until we get the violence under control, we don’t have safe places to live,” she said. “There isn’t a problem with violence that isn’t shared by every large city. There isn’t a problem with health care fraud that we have in Maryland that isn’t shared by every state.”