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Prosecutors testify for bill to limit judges

Prosecutors lined up yesterday to express enthusiasm for a bill that would limit judges’ discretionary powers to revise sentences in criminal cases.Introduced by Del. Anthony G. Brown, D-Prince George’s, HB 62 would limit to one year the time in which a sentencing judge has to revise, modify or reduce a sentence. Under existing law there is no time limit. “We need certainty — witnesses and victims in particular. They need to know that a sentence of 15 years is 15 years,” Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Jack B. Johnson testified before the House Judiciary Committee.The existing system, Johnson said, “is awful. It undermines confidence in the judicial system, it smacks of back-room deals.”Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler also expressed dissatisfaction with the existing system yesterday.“We don’t have truth in sentencing in Maryland,” said Gansler, who told the committee that “close to 100 percent” of the circuit court defendants in his county file motions to have their sentences reconsidered.However, Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. of the Court of Appeals, who is chairman of the court’s standing rules committee, testified that the public’s dislike for the existing system stems from only a handful of high-profile cases involving defendants who commit violent crimes after having their sentences reduced.Overall, the existing system serves several useful public purposes, Murphy said.The sentencing judge may retain jurisdiction over a case for years to see if a defendant successfully undergoes needed alcohol, drug or psychological counseling, Murphy said.Murphy noted that the ability to modify a sentence also helps prosecutors negotiate with a prisoner who learns valuable information about other inmates’ crimes.Murphy said earlier this month the rules committee proposed an amendment to existing Rule 4-345 to require prosecutors to notify victims when there is to be a post-conviction hearing. However, the suggested rule, which will be considered by the Court of Appeals, doesn’t address the concerns that Brown and others expressed.Brown also suggested possible amendments to his bill as a way of appealing to the Judiciary Committee, which killed a similar bill last year.The limitations could apply only to “crimes of violence,” Brown said, and an amendment could allow judges to require defendants to complete drug and alcohol programs before they could have their sentences reviewed.Finally, Brown said, when an inmate has information that could benefit prosecutors, the prosecutors could file a motion for reconsideration “whether that is within one month, one year or one decade.”Other differences will not be so easy to reconcile, said Brown, who told the committee that the “rehabilitation power” should be vested in the Department of Parole and Probation, not in the judiciary.The hearing on Brown’s bill took place about the same time the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee was considering a similar bill (SB 632), which was introduced by Sens. Christopher Van Hollen, D-Montgomery, and Jean W. Roesser, R-Montgomery.Both hearings went past press time.