Matt McDaniel

5 minute read

It’s an easy refrain: if it weren’t for the judges giving light sentences, criminals would be behind bars and the community would be safer. It even seems to comport with the evidence. When we pull up a rap sheet and see the years of contacts with the judicial system amounting to twenty or thirty slaps on the wrist, it’s “clear” that an individual was destined for violence.

So, what’s the conclusion? Blame the judges who refused to throw the book at an offender. It’s easy, it feels good, but it’s wrong.

Both District Court and Circuit Court judges go through a rigorous process before they ever take the bench. It isn’t the whim of a Governor (who appoints judges) that decides who gets on the bench. Rather, a nominating commission and bar associations interview and thoroughly vet lawyers who seek to be appointed. Only after this months-long process do names of qualified individuals get referred to the Governor, who makes the final decision. Often times, lawyers will apply for several vacancies over years before ever getting their names referred to the Governor for appointment.

Now, does being found qualified by a commission (made up of lawyers, non-lawyers, and community members) and the Governor absolve judges from scrutiny? Of course not. However, knowing what these people go through before ever hearing a case is an important prerequisite to discuss critiques of the judiciary.

Baltimore City’s current judicial infrastructure includes thirty-three Circuit Court judges (and twenty more who are retired or visiting and hear cases) in two courthouses and twenty-eight District Court judges in four courthouses. Most judges are assigned to hear criminal, civil, juvenile, or domestic cases. Despite the number of judges, the caseloads are immense and, given that the technology used to manage dockets has seemingly not advanced beyond the mid-1990s and the deteriorating condition of the Circuit Court buildings, it’s a wonder cases are processed with the speed that they are.

When you examine a case history for an offender and see that cases were dropped, these aren’t actions you should assign to the judge. Rather, the Office of the State’s Attorney (the prosecutor’s office) is the one who makes a decision to enter a “nolle prosequi” (effectively a dismissal). The reasons for this are myriad. In Baltimore City, it’s all-too-often that witnesses will refuse to cooperate with investigators or the backlog in labs (identifying drugs or processing evidence) will take so long that cases need to be dropped rather than risk someone sitting in jail for years before they ever go to trial. If there’s someone to “blame,” it’s the prosecutors and the police department’s labs.

Don’t be taken-in by the rhetoric that “plea bargains” are undercutting justice. Well-over 90% of cases that get beyond a dismissal wind up in a plea. A plea bargain is just that—a deal. The State (or the Court) will offer a sentence less than what they may be able to get if the case went to trial in exchange for a defendant admitting guilt (most of the time). For the State, it’s a case of taking a sure-thing rather than risking a defendant be found not guilty. Also, while it may not provide solace to victims of repeat offenders, the effects of a guilty plea usually do trigger statutory provisions that increase future sentences and can prohibit ownership of firearms. If there’s someone to “blame,” it’s articulate defense attorneys and prosecutors who would rather get a conviction than risk trial.

Remember, when serious felony cases do go to trial, it’s juries, not judges, who have to decide guilt or innocence. All-too-often Baltimore’s citizens are the ones giving second, third, or tenth chances to offenders. If there’s someone to “blame,” it’s all of us called to sit on Baltimore City juries.

Judges do have significant discretion in handing down certain sentences, it’s also important to note that they have little power to prevent early releases of convicts. Maryland’s prisons are crowded and, if an inmate is behaving behind bars, he or she is likely to be released well-before a sentence would expire naturally. This reality comes from the prison system, not from lenient judges. If there’s someone to “blame,” it’s the Division of Corrections and lawmakers in Annapolis.

Despite all of the reasons judges shouldn’t be held as the scapegoats for Baltimore’s violence, it does not mean their hands are clean. It’s an unfortunate reality that use of long suspended sentences and an unwillingness to violate repeat probation offenders, as well as a bail system that has been thrown into disarray by appellate court decisions, has resulted in dangerous individuals returning to their communities and committing crimes. There is also the macabre joke that, in Baltimore City, you can go into thirty-three different courtrooms and receive thirty-three different sentences for the same crime. Judges bristle at the notion of limiting discretion in their rulings, but legislative fixes in Annapolis must be considered in order to bring some degree of uniformity to sentencing, probation violation, and use of suspended sentences.

So, if judges really aren’t the ones who should be carrying all of the blame, why do you hear politicians lamenting the judiciary and claiming that their hands are tied by their co-equal branch’s decisions? Because we live in an age where virtue signaling is assumed to be action. If it can’t be solved by a hashtag or a rally streamed live on Facebook, many of our elected leaders are out of ideas. Blaming judges, then, is easier than taking action.