Judges sentencing criminals in Prince George's, Montgomery and Harford counties, and in Baltimore City, will start using new guidelines today that in most cases recommend significantly stiffer penalties than those suggested by experimental guidelines issued 18 months ago.
The guidelines, drawn up by a panel of 10 Maryland judges and meant to be advisory only, cover almost all criminal offenses except for some arson and white-collar crimes.
"Generally, the punishments are stiffer, certainly for crimes against the person," said Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Howard S. Chasanow, who is vice chairman of the panel working on the sentencing project. "In a very few areas they are less severe, primarily with first offenders."
Among other suggestions, the guidelines recommend that judges give consecutive, rather than concurrent, life sentences in murder cases if the defendants have also been convicted of abduction or rape and if the jury decides not to impose the death penalty. Last month, a large public outcry followed the decision of a Baltimore County judge to give Jack Ronald Jones concurrent sentences for the abduction, rape and murder of Stephanie Ann Roper.
"We didn't take any position on consecutive versus concurrent sentences in the first guidelines," Chasanow said. "We felt it was an area where we were going to have to wait and see what happened." But in drawing up the new guidelines, he added, "we felt that was incorrect, and that they ought to be consecutive: the guidelines are pretty specific."
The guidelines are not meant to determine the proper punishment for every crime but to reflect what judges are doing already, Chasanow said. He said the only reason the new guidelines recommend stiffer penalties is because Maryland judges have recently been imposing penalites that are more severe than those they were handing out when the first guidelines were issued.
About 70 percent of the sentences Maryland judges give fall within the new guidelines, Chasanow noted, adding that the new guidelines will be "cutting off the highs and the lows." He said sentencing is an individaul decision, with circumstance different in each case.
"At least we can cut off the gross disparity, the highs and the lows, when there is no good reason for them," he said.
Chasanow said the guidelines will help "make sure the person being sentenced understands that it is not totally arbitrary."
The need for the guidelines was illustrated at a recent meeting in which judges from around the state were shown a presentencing report from an actual case of a hold-up of a Baltimore motel and asked what sentence they would impose, Chasanow said. The sentences the judges gave ranged from a minimum of probation to a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The panel of judges working on the sentencing project plans to seek about $150,000 from the state legislature next year to pay for six people to administer the sentencing guideline program. At their annual Judicial Conference in May, judges will vote on whether they want the guideline program to operate in every jurisdiction in the state.
"I suspect if you ask almost any judge, sentencing is the single most difficult part of a judge's job, and sentencing is an area where you have very little or any training," Chasanow said, noting that law schools seldom teach courses in sentencing. Now, he said, Maryland judges at least will have a manual to guide them.