State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner, saying that Montgomery County Circuit Court judges are the most lenient in the state, announced yesterday that he will issue weekly lists of sentences to hold up to public scrutiny the punishment accorded convicted criminals in the county.
At a news conference, he distributed a list of 32 sentences imposed by judges last week, ranging from six months' unsupervised probation for driving while under the influence of alcohol to eight years in jail for housebreaking.
But Sonner focused his attention on an 18-month period ending in June when county judges gave probation to 85 percent of the child abusers, 61.6 percent of the drug dealers and 26.6 percent of the armed robbers.
"The public perception is that people who steal or rob or deal drugs go to jail; but the truth is, they don't," Sonner said.
Most judges, noting that their actions are a matter of public record, did not react yesterday to Sonner's announcement that he will publicize the sentences they impose. But Judge Stanley Frosh, whom Sonner singled out yesterday for criticism, chided the prosecutor for playing down the role that plea bargains Sonner negotiates play in determining what sentences are meted out.
"He should take responsibility. Plea negotiations are entirely under control of the state's attorney," Frosh said in an interview. "I would guess that fully one-half of the cases in this court are resolved by plea agreement, so when they go to a judge, he's rubber-stamping Andy Sonner."
All but four of the 32 sentences listed by Sonner yesterday involved plea bargains arranged by prosecutors.
Responding to Frosh's comments, Sonner acknowledged that judges have less influence in plea bargains than prosecutors and defense attorneys. But, he said, judges always can reject a plea agreement or give the stiffest penalty under the agreement.
Sonner, referring to sentences imposed between January 1983 and last June, asserted that "uptown crimes" such as embezzlement and child abuse in Montgomery County are treated too gently.
But Sonner said the treatment accorded drug dealers is "most disturbing." Sonner said that out of 180 drug dealers convicted during that 18-month period, 61.6 percent received probation instead of jail terms, 27.7 percent received jail sentences averaging 10 months and 10.7 percent were sent to prison.
"This means that if you are caught and convicted for having drugs, under circumstances that indicate you are a pusher, you have almost a 90 percent chance of serving less than 11 months in the local detention center," Sonner said.
Judges were less lenient with 108 armed robbers during that period, sending 62.1 percent to prison and 11.1 percent to the local jail while imposing probation in 26.6 percent of the cases.
Out of 20 convictions for child abuse during the same 18-month period, 17 offenders -- or 85 percent -- received probation, Sonner said. Two were sent to the local jail for terms of 18 months or less, and one was sent to state prison.
During the same period, six of eight convictions for embezzlement resulted in sentences of probation, Sonner said.
Judges responded that aside from plea bargains negotiated by prosecutors, they follow state sentencing guidelines and take into account whether the convicted person has a previous record or is taking steps to rehabilitate himself or herself. Judges said they also rely on their sense of fairness.
"Judges don't get together and say, 'What should I do with this guy or that woman,' " said Judge Leonard Ruben. "A judge does his own thing and hopes he does it right."