December 17, 2009
The other day, while waiting for the bread dough to rise in my kitchen, I filled out a Maryland Sentencing Guidelines Worksheet for the mayor of Baltimore, and this is what it looks like: probation to six months, with the possibility of the judge hitting Sheila Dixon harder or softer - and I'll tell you why it could go either way in a moment.
First, I need to give a shout-out to the Honorable Howard S. Chasanow and others associated with the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy. I found the 165-page manual, together with 50-page Appendix A (the guidelines table), far more user-friendly than I had expected. (So easy a judge can do it!) Those who developed the guidelines obviously distilled a vast array of factors into a relatively concise formula for suggesting sentences, while still allowing the trial judge to have the ultimate decision.
So, back to Sheila Dixon, who was convicted of fraudulent misappropriation by a fiduciary. Under Maryland law, this kind of theft is a misdemeanor. But the penalty range is a maximum of five years down to a minimum of one year in prison.
That's not a mandatory minimum.
So we turn to the sentencing guidelines, and fill out a work sheet, to arrive at the more likely sentence for the mayor.
The guidelines rate the seriousness of Ms. Dixon's crime as a V on a scale of I-VII, where I is the most serious offense and VII the least serious. (Murder is a category I crime; writing a bad check for less than $100 is considered a category VII.) Ms. Dixon's offense is also a property crime, versus a crime against a person - another factor in computing her sentence.
Ms. Dixon's "offender score" is zero, according to the guidelines. She had no "relationship to the criminal justice system when the instant offense occurred," no prior criminal record, and, as far as I know, she was not serving probation when indicted.
I matched my mayor's offender score with the seriousness of her offense and came up with the "guidelines range" of probation to six months.
I thought that was the end of the process until I read Chapter 14, about sentences outside the guideline range. This is where I found "departure codes," meaning codes for various reasons a judge might cite in going harder or softer on a defendant.
Among the nine "common reasons for departure below the guidelines range," I could not find one that applied to Sheila Dixon. There was no evidence that, in misusing gift cards intended for needy children, our mayor was coerced or "had diminished capability of judgment." Nor did she make "restorative efforts after the offense."
Code 9, however, would allow Circuit Court Judge Dennis M. Sweeney to cite "other circumstances" about Ms. Dixon - loss of her job, loss of her pension - to drop below the guidelines. "Those are extremely harsh penalties, particularly for someone like Sheila Dixon, who is not independently wealthy and does not have a wealthy spouse," says Andrew Levy, the defense attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "The judge can also take into account the good that Dixon has done, charitable and otherwise."
That's an important point.
But, deeper in Chapter 14, I found nine "common reasons" for sentences above the guidelines range, including these two:
Code 13: "Offender exploited a position of trust." Ms. Dixon was City Council president, in line to become mayor, when she asked developer Patrick Turner for a specific donation for some sort of "program" for kids in the Christmas season of 2005. The gift cards were delivered to her City Hall office. She used her position to get what she wanted from a developer doing big business in the city.
Code 14: "Offender committed a 'white collar' offense." Who knew Maryland sentencing guidelines suggest harsher sentences for this type of crime? The mayor's offense certainly falls into this category.
Looks to me that there are sound reasons - specifically delineated - for a stiffer-than-suggested penalty for Ms. Dixon. But I've learned three things certain about courts over the years: It's impossible to predict indictments, impossible to call jury verdicts, and impossible to know what judges will do until they do it.
My job is done here for now. Time to bake bread.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.
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