WASHINGTON – It’s not a typical boast, but Baltimore City circuit judges were pleased to drop recently from No. 1 to No. 11 — since the ranking measures criminal sentences that fall outside state-recommended guidelines.
A Capital News Service analysis of criminal sentences showed that Baltimore City courts fell outside the guidelines — meting out punishment that was either stiffer or more lenient than recommended — 69 percent of the time in 2001, the highest departure rate in the state. That followed departures as high as 76 percent in 1999.
But the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy, at the urging of city judges, agreed this year to exclude some plea bargains and alternative sentences from their calculations. Those sentences typically fall below the sentence guidelines.
Using the newly adjusted figures, Baltimore City’s sentencing variance rate dropped to just 14.7 percent — under the statewide average of 18 percent and right in the middle of the other jurisdictions in the state.
The adjusted figure is “a more accurate picture of what’s going on in the courts,” said Court of Special Appeals Judge Andrew Sonner, the chairman of the sentencing commission.
He and others have said that the sheer volume of cases in Baltimore — the city accounted for between 41 and 45 percent of all criminal cases in the state over the three years — often demands a sentence that is outside the guidelines. They say that is particularly true with the high number of drug crimes the city is grappling with.
“Baltimore City has a drug problem that they are seeking to remedy with drug treatment,” Sonner said.
But at least one judge is unhappy with the adjusted figures. Prince George’s Circuit Judge Steven Platt said exempting plea bargains only distorts the percentages — even though they lower his county’s variance rate sharply, from 31.8 to 10.9 percent.
“If you exempt them all together, you are carving out a substantial part of the sentences,” Platt said.
“Guidelines are supposed to show what the average sentences are,” he said. “I don’t think you can say something is in compliance when it is not. What we are doing is exempting cases that should be in noncompliance, just so that we are in compliance.”
Every county lowered its departure rate using the adjusted figures in 2001 except for Garrett County, which stayed at 50 percent. Statewide, the departure rate dropped from 49.1 percent to 18 percent with the adjusted figures, well below a state target of 33 percent noncompliance.
Supporters say the adjusted numbers are a more valuable measure of the courts — not just a way to cook the books. Michael Connelly, executive director of the commission, said they adjustments were necessary to reflect what he calls a “more intensive, less incarcerative” judicial system.
“You want them (judges) to use correction options, but when they do, they are out of compliance,” Connelly said. “Any system where you try to set rules that apply to a broad set of people, you’re going to have these problems.”
Baltimore City Circuit Judge John C. Themelis noted the bind in which judges found themselves when they handed out sentences before the adjustment.
“Initially, there was nothing except within or outside the guidelines,” said Themelis, a member of the sentencing commission. “Rest assured we are acting within the guidelines.”
Bill Roesseler, deputy state’s attorney for Anne Arundel County, said the new classifications take a lot of pressure off judges and offer more flexibility with sentencing.
“A judge is going to say, `I don’t want to put this person in DOC (Department of Corrections)’,” and will now be able to do so without fretting about the guidelines, Roesseler said.