ANNAPOLIS- Maryland’s judges followed the state’s voluntary sentencing guidelines in over three-quarters of criminal cases over the last fiscal year, according to a report by the State Commission of Criminal Sentencing Policy.
The annual report showed that of the about 13,500 sentences handed down by circuit court judges in the state, 75.8 percent fell within the advisory sentence ranges first established in 1983 to make sentences statewide more equitable.
The commission’s report, required by law, is designed to “capture the sentencing trends throughout the year” so that guidelines can be adjusted accordingly, said Haisha Thompson, the commission’s training coordinator.
Since guidelines were adjusted to include treatment programs and house arrests in 2002, state circuit court judges have met the goal of at least 65 percent of sentences conforming to the guidelines each year. Compliance rates have actually fallen slightly from about 80 percent in fiscal 2002.
The latest report shows that deviations from guidelines were more likely to occur in drug cases and cases in which defendants pleaded guilty without a prior agreement with a judge or prosecutor.
Judges followed guidelines most often in plea agreement cases, about 86 percent of the time. Cases that involved crimes against people such as assault generally yielded sentences that fit the guidelines more than those involving drug and property crimes.
“When departures from the guidelines occurred, it was much more likely to be departures below the guidelines’ range,” David Soule, the commission’s executive director, told the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
Deviations from the guidelines were more likely to be harsher sentences only in the relatively small number of cases where verdicts were decided by juries. About 22 percent of sentences went beyond the guidelines in those cases.
Guidelines were followed most closely in the state’s second-busiest circuit, the seventh, which includes Prince George’s, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, where 88 percent of sentences fell within the guidelines. Baltimore City’s 8th Circuit Court, which accounted for 42 percent of all sentences in the state, was nearly equal to the state average.
The 3rd Circuit Court in Baltimore and Harford counties handed down the most sentences outside the guidelines – meaning, either harsher or more lenient – though it met the statewide compliance goal of 65 percent.
Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, questioned the commission’s method of determining judges’ reasoning for deviating from the guidelines, pointing out the report’s findings that judges did not give reasons in 60 percent of cases.
“You’re not really getting good feedback,” Gutierrez said, saying that the set of reasons the commission provides on its worksheets is vague and difficult to understand.
Judges cited plea agreements as the leading reason for sentences below guidelines. The second most common reason was simply “other circumstances of the crime and/or offenders,” which could include the defendant’s prior criminal record, medical complications or weak facts in the case.
Delegate Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, criticized the state sentencing standards themselves, saying that there needs to be more distinction between different types of property crimes.
“I was absolutely astonished to know that there was no separate white-collar crime category, to distinguish between somebody who stole $500 and $5 million,” he said.
At a University of Maryland School of Law forum on sentencing reform Wednesday, Maryland Federal Public Defender Jim Wyda said that, while he opposes federal sentencing guidelines, he approves of the state’s voluntary system for the most part.
“An advisory guideline system with transparency . . . that’s the way to go,” he told the audience.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey said that the state guidelines work because they “provide a snapshot of what judges do” rather than using the federal guidelines’ more mathematical approach.
Still, Ivey said, quarrels can arise among prosecutors and judges who aim for stronger sentencing in cases involving domestic abuse or child sex offenses. He said there needs to be more distinction between drug crimes and violent crimes in sentencing practices nationwide.
Speakers at the forum all advocated the need for more drug treatment and community outreach programs for defendants convicted of drug crimes. “Fixing these problems is not all going to be a courtroom exercise,” Ivey said.