Judges in Maryland, who enjoy uniquely broad authority to cut criminal sentences through a process called "judicial reconsideration," may find that power constrained under legislation before the General Assembly.
"I think there's a debate nationally about how much discretion judges may have," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "And it also seems to me that the wide latitude that they have in Maryland is probably too great in terms of discretion."
Frosh is chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and has watched legislation on judicial limits fizzle in the past. This year might be different, he said.
Proponents say reconsideration, commonly requested by defense attorneys but infrequently granted, offers incarcerated offenders incentive to behave and encourages first-time offenders to comply with sentencing requirements such as drug treatment programs in lieu of jail.
In Baltimore courtrooms, where felony drug crimes make up about 80 percent of the daily docket, judges generally use the power to reward well-behaving drug offenders but rarely reduce the sentence of a person convicted of a violent crime.
Opponents of judicial reconsideration say it is torturous for crime victims and their families to have painful cases resurrected years later in court, often without their knowledge. More disturbing, violent criminals have been released early only to re-offend.
The most recent example was Michael W. Sears. In May, the 54-year-old former postal worker came to embody what lawmakers hope reining in Maryland judges' discretionary powers would prevent.
Sears, who killed himself Jan. 10 while awaiting a new sentence in the Prince George's County Detention Center, was first convicted of murder in 1992. He was sentenced to 30 years for fatally stabbing his estranged wife at his home in Clinton.
Prince George's County Circuit Judge Joseph S. Casula sentenced Sears to 30 years in prison. Sears' attorney filed a motion for reconsideration within 90 days of the sentence, pointing out that it was his first criminal offense and a crime of passion. A psychiatrist offered the opinion that Sears was unlikely to re-offend. In 1999, Casula cut a decade off Sears' sentence, which enabled him to be paroled three years later.
Within two years, Sears murdered his girlfriend.
Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat who served for eight years as that county's prosecutor, said he hoped lawmakers would read a cautionary tale in the saga of Michael Sears.
"When I was county prosecutor, I found quite a bit of abuse, based on favoritism and connections, in judicial reconsideration," Johnson said during a visit to the State House. "To have sentences reconsidered in violent crimes shouldn't happen."
Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and member of the House Judiciary Committee who introduced the bill, said he expects at least two other versions of the bill to be introduced by other lawmakers.
All of the bills would prevent judges from reducing sentences after a certain period from the initial sentencing had elapsed.
Change will come to the judges, he said.
"There will be ample opportunity to review reconsideration," Sophocleus said. "The judges realize that they have to do something. They recognize that there is a problem."
Reconsideration rarely results in inmates being released from prison. Of the 14,604 prisoner releases in 2002, 443 releases - 3 percent - happened as a result of any type of court order.
Prince George's County Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Democrat and vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has in the past sponsored legislation limiting the post-sentencing discretion and said he will back a similar bill during this session. The committee's chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a defense attorney and also a Prince George's Democrat, opposes tying judges' hands.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not taken a position on the issue, although he has said that he generally does not favor restraining judges' flexibility when it comes to sentencing.
If legislators approve putting reins on judicial reconsideration, it could have unintended effects on the decisions of Baltimore Circuit Court judges such as Joseph P. McCurdy Jr.
"First of all, it's not done every day," McCurdy said. "But it can be a benefit in different ways, as an incentive for defendants to consider plea agreements rather than demand trials, and more importantly, as an incentive for them to complete their probation in a positive way and get on with their lives. Here in Baltimore, basically it's a tool to promote compliance with defendants and somehow alleviate some of the docket issues that we have."
Early last month, a committee of Maryland's Court of Appeals - a body of prosecutors, attorneys, judges and lawmakers, including Vallario - narrowly rejected amending the court rule to limit judicial reconsideration when more than five years have elapsed since a sentence was imposed in cases of murder, rape or other violent crimes. But that rules committee agreed to pass the matter on to the full seven-member court for review.