WASHINGTON – More than half of all drug-crime sentences in the state fell below recommended guidelines between 1999 and 2001, according to data from the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy.
While 57 percent of drug crimes were below the guidelines, 38 percent of crimes against people fell below the guidelines and 30 percent of property crimes did so. The database included sentences for about 25,000 “single-event” crimes — those in which there was only one charge — in the state’s circuit courts.
But court watchers defend the drug sentencing departures because of the vast numbers of such crimes — they accounted for more than 14,000 entries in the database — and because it is more important to treat addicts than to jail them.
“A great effort is made generally in the court to find appropriate drug treatment programs,” said Judge Ellen Heller, administrative judge of the Circuit Court of Baltimore. “If the motive is primarily addiction, let’s treat the addiction so we can prevent recidivism.”
And drug charges are primarily public health problems as well as criminal justice concerns, said Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland School of Law professor.
“I think whenever a judge is willing to take a chance and see drug addiction as a health issue, as one that doesn’t require the knee-jerk of a jail sentence, that judge should be commended,” Colbert said.
But not everyone agrees.
“Anytime we don’t fully sentence a criminal to jail we’re putting lives of law-abiding citizens at risk,” said state Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick.
“I don’t mind some treatment but I also think you need to punish people,” he said, adding that cases need to be looked at individually.
“The bottom line is, if you have a $300-a-day crack cocaine habit, oftentimes you’ll resort to stealing to pay for the habit,” he said. “So I think that the punishment for stealing, breaking and entering people’s homes, stealing cars ought to be fully applied.”
Maryland sentencing guidelines have been in place statewide since 1983, when they were instituted to address judicial disparities across the state. The guidelines are meant to help judges decide on sentences that are both fair and consistent across the state.
Judges are supposed to give a reason when they depart from the guidelines, but over the past 10 years, they have failed to give their reasons in about 75 percent of departures, according to the commission. It reports annually to the General Assembly on sentencing trends in the state.
Despite the voluntary nature of the sentencing guidelines, they have helped judges make more uniform decisions on sentencing, said Charles Wellford, the director of the Maryland Justice Analysis Center and a commission member.
Since 2001, he said, alternative sentences like drug treatment have not been counted as sentence departures.
The lion’s share of drug crimes was in Baltimore City, which sentenced close to 8,500 people for drug charges from 1999 to 2001 — almost 6,400 of them below the sentencing guidelines. Only Prince George’s County also made it into four figures, sentencing just over 1,100 drug offenders during that time.
In Baltimore, many of the downward departures result from plea bargains.
“The numbers are overwhelming, and you can’t go to trial on 250 cases at a time. It’s just an impossibility,” said Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for Baltimore City State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy. “Pleas are a way that we can manage caseloads.”
Burns stressed that, even in plea bargains, prosecutors still aim for appropriate sentences.
Not everyone takes the Baltimore approach, however, even though drugs reach into all parts of the state.
In Charles County, “most of our crime is related to drugs or alcohol,” said Assistant State’s Attorney Jerome Spencer. But just 18 percent of the county’s drug sentences fall below guidelines, compared to 37 percent for crimes against people and 22 percent for property crimes.
“Our judges typically don’t view it as an excuse,” Spencer said.
Allegany County State’s Attorney Michael Twigg said he constantly reviews policies toward drug cases.
“Right now I have a zero-tolerance policy toward heroin,” Twigg said, citing recent deaths in the area linked to the drug. In contrast, the county has a diversionary program for first-time marijuana users, to reduce the impact on their criminal record.
But in Baltimore the drug problem is “epidemic,” according to a grand jury report on the Baltimore Circuit Court for the September 2002 to January 2003 term. It estimated that more than 60,000 drug addicts live in the city — almost as much as the total Allegany County population of 74,000 people.
At least 70 percent of the cases heard in Baltimore Circuit Court were “directly or indirectly related to drug abuse,” the report noted. For drug abusers, incarceration “is much more costly and not nearly as effective” as treatment.
Overcrowding is also a problem in the city, where the jails were operating at 96 percent of capacity halfway through 2002, according to the Department of Justice. That could be a sentencing factor for some judges, said Cindy J. Smith, director of the criminal justice graduate program at the University of Baltimore.
“The most serious way to reduce jail overcrowding is to look at the drug epidemic in ways that don’t result in further incarceration without at least having tried other approaches,” said Colbert.
And while departures might have drawbacks on paper, they still serve an important purpose in treating each case individually, Twigg said.
“It would be difficult to cookie cutter every type of offense,” he said.