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Thiru Vignarajah: Judges are not to blame for Baltimore’s record violence

Thiru Vignarajah

Thiru Vignarajah

Public officials — from our governor and mayor to our former police commissioner and members of the Baltimore City Council — continue to blame city judges for another year of record murders. This month, interim Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle joined the chorus. He criticized Judge Jeffrey Geller for releasing on probation a defendant, Raytawn Benjamin, charged with illegal gun possession, who has also allegedly been linked to several gang-related murders.

It’s a tempting strategy: firing at targets who, by oath and office, can’t shoot back. It’s a shrewd tactic used to support failed, regressive policies like mandatory minimums that resurface in times of crisis. It’s also a false narrative that needs to be put to rest.

Part of the problem is a common misconception of the role of judges when it comes to sentencing. Truth is, city judges decide what sentence to impose in a tiny fraction of cases.

Here’s the reality that many outside the justice system do not know:

Once a case is indicted by the grand jury, it can end in one of four ways. First, prosecutors could drop the case, a decision judges have no power to stop. Second, the case could result in an acquittal, where again there is no sentence for the judge to impose. Third, prosecutors could strike a plea deal with the defendant, which under Maryland law judges cannot influence — unless the prosecutor and defense counsel allow it. Finally, a jury could find the defendant guilty at trial.

Only in this last case — a conviction at trial — does a judge have actual authority to decide what prison sentence is warranted. But trial convictions are rare these days. The Baltimore Sun reported last year that “(o)nly 17 percent of defendants who elected to go to trial were tried and convicted,” which produced a startling total of only 175 trial convictions for an entire year in Baltimore. Sentences in those cases are the sole ones for which the public can fairly fault judges.

This is why I decided to take a closer look at the video in the troubling case of Raytawn Benjamin.

Turns out, there’s a lot more to the story, perhaps more than the commissioner knew.

As the Daily Record editorial advisory board pointed out last week, the sentence the judge ultimately chose was not far from the plea range proposed by the prosecutor and defense attorney. The prosecutor asked for 18 months; that meant, for a firearm charge where an inmate typically serves half the sentence because of the time he had already served, Benjamin would be out by summer.

Moreover, the city judge knew almost none of the facts Tuggle identified as reasons for a stiffer penalty. The judge was never told that Benjamin had been linked to gangs or murders; that he had been shot twice; that incriminating evidence was recovered from his cellphone; or that, from prison, the defendant asked an associate to dispose of a gun used in numerous violent crimes.

Benjamin’s only other adult charge, also for a firearm, was dropped because the arresting officers were convicted on federal corruption charges.

Sure, Geller could have focused more on the defendant’s prior juvenile commitments for firearms, which the prosecutor noted — or asked more, in a city besieged by retaliatory killings, about the recent murder of the defendant’s mother, which the defense attorney referenced. But what Geller faced was one side asking him to sentence a 20-year-old with no adult convictions to a few more months in prison, while the other side asked the judge to send Benjamin home that day with no prospects and a felony record.

Instead, Judge Geller picked up the phone, called Project Serve (a workforce development program with wraparound services led by Living Classrooms), and proposed Benjamin as a candidate. The defendant was required to return to court on Jan. 17 with an update. Neither the prosecutor nor the defense lawyer raised an objection.

Everyone is fed up with unrelenting crime. Many will still disagree with the judge’s decision, even with these additional facts and context. In this case and every other, there’s room for improvement all around. But this is hard work, and these are hard choices by public servants of good faith.

For Baltimore to turn things around in the new year, we need an honest appraisal of real deficits, not imagined ones, along with a lot more focus on how to address this crisis rather than who to blame for it. So, as popular as it has become to point the finger at judges, let’s be sure to have as complete a picture as possible before rendering our verdict. I remain confident that judges, including Geller, endeavor to do that every day.

Thiru Vignarajah, the former deputy attorney general of Maryland, was a federal and city prosecutor in Baltimore and served as law clerk to Justice Stephen Breyer. 

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