ANNAPOLIS — Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has jumped into the ongoing debate over judicial sentencing power by backing legislation to limit judges’ authority.
Pitting herself against the state’s highest tribunals, Townsend is pushing for a bill to curb a judge’s ability to change the sentence of a convicted criminal after trial.
“Often when you talk to victims, they feel that they have been victimized twice,” Townsend said at a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing Tuesday. “They never really know if the sentence is final. We need to maintain public confidence in our judiciary.”
Maryland’s is the only judiciary in the nation that exercises an unlimited right to review and re-sentence cases, according to a survey conducted by The Washington Post last year. In Maryland, so long as a request is filed within 90 days of the original sentencing, a judge may opt to reconsider any case, sometimes reducing a sentence years later.
Senate Bill 73, filed by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., D-Montgomery, would limit a judge’s power to reconsider a case up to one year after sentencing.
Judges’ reconsideration powers have created a perplexing situation in Maryland, said Prince George’s County Deputy State’s Attorney Robert L. Dean. As an example, he cited an open motion to reconsider in a violent rape case tried 15 years ago. The man was sentenced to 60 years, but could go free if a judge decided to resentence him. In another case, a defendant asserted that his lawyer was ineffective simply because he did not file to have his sentence reconsidered.
“Should Maryland have a system that allows for such chaos?” Dean asked.
The General Assembly has been reluctant in the past to limit the power of judges, but this is the first time the lieutenant governor has entered the fray, asking legislators to support the bill.
The House Judiciary Committee killed a similar bill last session.
Townsend is joined by the state’s prosecutors and victim’s rights proponents.
Victim’s rights advocate Roberta Roper said crime victims “place their total trust and dependence on prosecutors and the court. There is no greater disservice than for victims to leave the court room and not know the truth.”
After the debate last year, judges enacted rules to ensure victims are notified when a case is reconsidered and to require judges state in writing why they have reduced the sentence.
“I have been searching for situations (in the last year) where somebody has come forward and complained about being left out of the loop. I simply haven’t heard it,” said Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of the Court of Special Appeals.
Judges do not want the law changed, said Prince George’s County Circuit Judge William Missouri, because a judge’s power to reconsider cases is a way to encourage good behavior and reward rehabilitation, particularly in drug cases.
“If he did not commit a crime of violence, I think there is a possibility that the individual is not someone that you want to throw away,” Missouri said. “Give that individual the ability to lead a productive life.”
Chief District Judge James Vaughan added, “Recovery is beginning to work. We have to think in the long range.”
The justice system has other mechanisms in place to reward or release criminals who maintain good behavior or work toward recovery, the Townsend said.
“I’m very pleased judges want to help people, but we already have a parole system in place,” Townsend said.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is considering the bill. In a recent committee hearing, compromises such as making the reconsideration limitation only for violent crimes or changing the limitation requirement from one year to three years arose.
Allowing reconsideration only in cases where the prosecutor requests it was another option.
Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said of the debate: “I can appreciate the arguments on both sides of this.”
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