Prince George's County State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. yesterday issued a new policy on sentencing recommendations that judges and defense lawyers say should encourage defendants to plead guilty instead of going to trial..
The policy, designed to end the backlog of cases in Circuit Court, allows prosecutors to suggest sentences for crimes that are not within the limits of an experimental sentencing guidelines program.
As of Jan. 1, according to Marshall's memorandum, prosecutors no longer are bound by the sentencing guidelines and "are free to and should ask for those type of sentences that they believe to be most appropriate."
Marshall said he decided to change his policy because prosecutors in his office often disagreed with the sentences suggested in the experimental guidelines project, yet they were bound by Marshall to recommend them. "We were being destroyed here," said Marshall. "Each attorney here cries on a daily basis, asking me why we're giving it the guidelines a try."
Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Vincent J. Femia said he believes Marshall's new policy will reduce the backlog of 900 cases awaiting trial, since more defendants will be encouraged to plead guilty.
During the past few months, defense attorneys and judges have cited the state's attorney office's strict adherence to the guidelines in recommending sentences as one of the reasons for the dramatic increase in the number of cases in Circuit Court. Many defense lawyers were unwilling to let their clients plead guilty to crimes because the clients would have received the same sentence with a trial as with a guilty plea.
Defense lawyers also complained that prosecutors were not specific enough in recommending sentences within the guidelines during plea negotiations. The guidelines suggest a range of years in prison and defendants did not know whether they would receive a light or heavy sentence within the range.
Marshall said that from now on when his prosecutors suggest a sentence that falls within the sentencing guidelines, they also will be free to name a specific sentence instead of simply saying "guidelines," which suggests a range of years that is too broad to be helpful to defense attorneys.
Marshall said his prosecutors will discuss sentences during pre-trial conferences and in the state's attorney's office beginning Jan. 1.