Abuse of judicial system; secret sentencing deals

Yesterday, the WashingtonPost ran a story that upset me more than anything I have read in a while. It seems in Maryland, judges can reduce the sentence of any criminal for whatever reason (or no reason) they want. One of the examples given involves a man who was sentenced for shooting a man to death in a fight.

(bolding mine)

The family of the victim was never told of the resentencing. As far as they were to know, the killer was to be in prison. The fact that the judge and attorneys set up the “show” sentencing is, to me, especially grievous. In fact, in many of these circumstances, the victim (or victim’s family) is never told of the rehearing that lets the perpetrator out of prison before the assigned sentence is up. The original sentence is there to placate the family and get written up in the papers to snow the community into thinking that justice has been done; to “send a message to the community.” The message is, they are making fools out of the people of Maryland.

This is not like parole. To my knowledge, a parole hearing goes in front of a board who is responsible to voters or at least the state legislature or some sort of oversight. And doesn’t the victim or other interested parties get to show up and have a voice?

The article goes on to mention that this judicial privledge does not come from any law publically debated or voted on by the legislature, but from a procedural rule decided on by the judges themselves.

I guess it is moot to ask “how can they get away with this,” because obviously they are. But is it right?

Some more examples:

I think more of this story is in today’s Post, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I’m so disgusted that I will wait until this evening, so as not to further depress my mood for the day.

Thanks for listening.

It seems to me that the reason they do this is that crime victims and the public often have revenge on their minds, and their idea of an appropriate sentence is very often much stricter than what an impartial judge would consider appropriate. They’re trying to please the masses without allowing the sentence to be dictated by public opinion.

There are a couple of problems with that theory. Philosophically, it’s just plain bad to have secret judicial proceedings. That’s why the 6th Amendment provides for “the right to a speedy and public trial”. (I am not saying these agreements violate the 6th Amendment, I’b just pointing out that the Founding Fathers considered public judicial proceedings to be extremely important.) Citizens have a right to know what is happening in the courtroom, especially since the courts deal with matters of life, freedom and death. Private hearings and deals lend themselves to abuse. The judge and prosecutor might think a lesser sentence is more just – and they might be right – but that doesn’t mean they should hide that decision from the public. Citizens have a right to debate whether sentences are too light or too heavy. While I don’t like the idea of legislatures threatening judges for their sentences, I do believe that they have a right to be informed of what is happening in the other branches of government.

There is also an issue of legitimacy. The courts don’t have power to legislate or to enforce the laws, they only have the right to interpret law and pass sentence. Courts rely on the public accepting the decisions as legitimate. When something like the Washington Post article comes to light, the courts take a big hit in the credibility department.

Isn’t a sentencing supposed to do more than “placate” a family? The victim, or hir family, shouldn’t be misinformed about how long their attacker will be in prison; they need to know how long they can feel safe from that person. If they’re not happy with the sentencing, then they’re not, but that’s still better than thinking “This person won’t hurt anyone else (except other cons) for five years,” and being wrong. Also, aren’t they supposed to be informed when the convict is released?

The good news is that the Maryland legislature is revisiting this policy and will likely make some changes. Several legislators said they were unaware of this practice until the series in the Post came out last week. They were aghast that this was going on, and they seem determined to put an end to this abuse of the judicial system.

Of course there will be some opposition. Judges and defense lawyers who have become accustomed to the sentencing and dealmaking power they have had (and remember, this is very different than plea-bargaining or parole consideration), it will be hard for them to just let that go. Hopefully some real change can be effected.

I never thought I would say this, but kudos to the Washington Post for its uncovering of this story.