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The public needs some way to judge the judges

Just how much are judges to blame for crime? If you were to ask former interim police commissioner Gary Tuggle, he might say a lot. He lashed out at a circuit court judge for giving what he considered a repeat violent offender a sentence of probation before judgement for handgun violations, which meant no jail time. He and others, including Gov. Larry Hogan, contend that judges give out sentences for handgun crimes that are way too lenient and bail that is too low, allowing bad guys back on the street to commit more crimes and cycle in and out of the prison system.

But really, it is hard to get a big picture look at the sentencing practices of judges. That data is not easily accessible to the public because the court system doesn’t track it. There is no official database to search how long judges are sentencing people to jail. And online court records don’t list judges’ names, making it impossible for advocacy groups, reporters or even individuals to do their own analysis.

This is unacceptable in an era when the public is calling for more transparency in the criminal justice system. The work of judges needs to be more open to the public, and as Doug Donovan reported this week, there is momentum in the General Assembly to make that happen.

Governor Hogan has introduced legislation to track and publish data about individual judges’ sentencing decisions for people convicted of violent crimes. The information would be part of an annual report put out by the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy. Legislation from other lawmakers also calls for allowing cameras in courtrooms during sentencing hearings and adding names of judges to online public court records. Currently, judges are listed by code numbers in those records, and the judiciary has refused to release a list of what numbers correspond to which judges.

Critics argue that listing judges names can risk their safety. But court dockets list their names, and anyone can attend a trial. A database would just make the information accessible to more people and allow us to make some meaningful evaluation of judges’ records. Police officers and lawyers are named in online court files, why shouldn’t judges be as well?

There is also concern that judges’ decisions would be swayed by potential public opinion. That’s more likely to occur because of public attention during a high-profile case, not by the possibility that someone could look up the information after the fact in a database. And if a judge is worried that he or she will be influenced by public opinion, not the evidence and the law, he or she is in the wrong profession. We have enough trust and faith in our judges, who go through an extensive evaluation process before they are appointed, to believe they would follow the rule of the law.

We have extensive data about how U.S. Supreme Court judges rule; if they can handle that level of scrutiny, so can local judges. And if local judges say they are not the problem when it comes to crime, they shouldn’t mind being transparent to show everyone else what little role they play.

We understand that a database won’t tell us everything about a judge’s performance and tendencies. Many factors can go into a sentencing decision that won’t be captured by the numbers alone. But in the aggregate, the data will at least help us to discern patterns and trends and will provide some basis for comparison between judges overseeing similar types of cases. Given that voters face the task of deciding whether to retain judges every 10 years for district courts and every 15 for circuit courts, we ought to have some basis for discerning between them. Ultimately, we think the answer is not just better record keeping but the establishment of a robust system of judicial evaluations like those that exist in other states.

Evaluations shouldn’t be used to demonize judges. There are many reasons for perennial crime problems like those found in Baltimore, and tougher or more objectively consistent sentences aren’t necessarily the answer. But we have argued that transparency in police investigations would give citizens more trust in the judicial system at time when the relationship between the two is deeply scarred. If police need to be more open, so do judges.

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