Violent crime is out of control in Baltimore. The homicide rate is above 300 for the seventh year running, and Gov. Larry Hogan is frustrated that no one has been able to stop the murders.
A couple of weeks ago he lashed out at the Baltimore City State’s Attorney. And, last week, the governor submitted some bills aimed, he says, at curbing violent crime.
One component of his proposed legislation is requiring that the courts compile data regarding how the circuit court judges sentence violent criminals. This requirement is intended to include the name of the judge, the crime, and the sentence. It might include a statement of the maximum sentence for comparative purposes.
The intention of this bill goes beyond merely keeping relevant data; it is intended to advise voters, who ultimately have to elect, and in many cases reelect judges, which judges appear soft on crime. It is intended to affect how they vote for or against judges. And it can be a hammer wielded by someone running against the sitting judges.
This is wrong for so many reasons, not the least of which is that in Baltimore the vast majority of sentences occur subject to an agreed-to plea bargain between the assistant state’s attorney and defense lawyer – not because a particular judge is soft on crime.
We know this because back in 2016-2017 then Baltimore City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, looking for an excuse why crime was out of control, told the press “60% of criminals convicted of gun crimes get out of jail early as a result of suspended sentences.” Hogan picked this up and ran with it, using it as a basis to demand a meeting with the city judges, who did not meet, asserting separation of powers through then-Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.
This board researched Davis’ claim, crunched the numbers and determined that 90 percent of the cases cited by Davis had their sentences negotiated before the parties ever approached a judge. In other words, the SAO entered into plea bargains her office, in each case, found to be satisfactory.
The governor is again attempting to take the legislature down this same wormhole, blaming the city’s circuit court judges for sentences that are the result of plea bargains and implying if they can’t get tough on crime the voters should remove them from the bench.
The governor is frustrated; all of us are. But his effort to damage the independence of the judiciary and bring it under sway of the executive branch is wrong. Finally, we remind the governor, the system will not function without plea bargains unless he’s willing to build new courthouses and appoint more judges.
We urge the legislature to ignore this bill.
Editor’s note: Editorial Advisory Board Chairman James B. Astrachan is married to Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Julie R. Rubin.
EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS
James B. Astrachan, Chair
James K. Archibald
Gary E. Bair
Andre M. Davis
Arthur F. Fergenson
Julie C. Janofsky
Ericka N. King
Angela W. Russell
Debra G. Schubert
L. Mark Stichel
The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.