WASHINGTON – Maryland judges are sticking closer to voluntary sentencing guidelines in criminal cases, according to a Capital News Service analysis of criminal sentences from the last three years.
Slightly more than 49 percent of the 7,924 criminal sentences recorded in the state fell outside recommended sentencing guidelines — either harsher or more lenient — in 2001. That was down from 58 percent of sentences in 1999, according to data compiled by the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy.
Court officials said the drop reflects a growing awareness among circuit judges about the voluntary guidelines, as well as a recent push to have judges fill out state forms that require them to say whether a sentence is above or below the guidelines and, if so, why.
Judges still have a long way to go to meet a commission goal of having two out of three sentences fall within the recommended guidelines. But commission members welcomed the drop, while former opponents said their fears of judges being hemmed in by requirements have not been borne out.
“We thought it (sentencing guidelines) was the end of the world,” said Ara Crowe, executive director of Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association. “However, the experiment over a long period of time shows that guidelines are very fair in meting out punishment.”
The guidelines also give victims and their families a framework to comprehend the sentencing process, said Russell Butler, executive director of Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center.
“Victims, as members of the general public, have a right to understanding the system,” Butler said. “They may not be satisfied, but at least they will know how the judge reached his decision.”
The move toward voluntary sentencing guidelines began in 1981, after several Maryland judges became concerned about disparity in sentences across the state, said Michael Connelly, executive director of the sentencing commission. He said those judges put together several hypothetical cases and asked judges around the state to recommend a sentence. From those answers, they developed the first set of guidelines.
“The whole purpose was to provide guidance,” said Connelly. “Here’s what people who have been at this for a long time think the sentences should be, if all things were equal.”
The Administrative Office of the Courts collected the data in an informal manner, said Connelly, until 1999, when the state created the sentencing commission to oversee and set sentencing guidelines for the state.
While the commission is required to report its findings annually to the General Assembly, the guidelines are still wholly voluntary and there is no sanction from the commission, governor or legislature against judges that deviate from them.
Since the commission was created in 1999, all but five counties in the state have seen a decrease in the percentage of sentences that depart — up or down — from the guidelines.
Most of the departures are for sentences that are more lenient than the guidelines recommend. In 1999, 52 percent of all sentences that judges handed out in the state were more lenient than the recommendation. By 2001, judges were falling below sentence guidelines 45 percent of the time.
Dorchester County had the lowest departure rate of 13 percent in 2001, while Baltimore City had the highest rate, at 69 percent.
But Baltimore judges say that number misrepresents the situation in their circuit, where large numbers of drug-related cases result in an inordinate amount of plea bargains or sentences requiring drug treatment rather than jail time. While those sentences fall outside the state guidelines, judges there say those sentences are the most judicious for the 8th Circuit.
The commission this year agreed, exempting certain plea bargains and correction options like drug treatment from the calculations of sentencing departures. When those adjustments are taken into account, departures in Baltimore City in 2001 dropped from 69 percent to just under 15 percent, putting the city squarely in the middle of jurisdictions in the state.
“This circuit far outperforms any circuit statewide,” said Judge John C. Themelis, a Baltimore judge and a member of the sentencing commission.
The statewide departure rate also plummeted in 2001 when plea bargains and alternative sentences were excluded, falling from an unadjusted 49 percent to an adjusted departure rate of 18 percent.
The adjusted totals will not be part of the official departure numbers sent to the General Assembly this spring, Connelly said. The commission will use the aggregate, higher number in its annual report to state legislators.
“If Baltimore ever got it (drug problems) under control, then you’ll see the departures go down and compliance rates shoot up,” Connelly said.