Maryland Senate Passes Watered Down Judicial Transparency Bill

In the Daily Record

“You are going to be able to make those comparisons and trend analyses and so if there is a (sentencing) problem in a certain jurisdiction, you got it. You’ll be able to see it,” said Sen. William “Will” Smith, chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, in defending the committee’s decision to jettison a proposed judge-by-judge tally in favor of jurisdictional ones. (The Daily Record/File photo)

The Democratic-led Maryland Senate passed legislation this month calling on a state commission to compile and post circuit court sentencing data on a largely county-by county-basis, rebuffing Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal that the posted information provide by name the sentence each Maryland judge rendered for violent criminals.

Following the Senate’s 46-0 vote, attention now has shifted to the House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Senate-passed bill Tuesday.

Introduced at Hogan’s behest, the proposed Judicial Transparency Act called on the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy to list publicly the sentence each judge imposed for each defendant convicted of a violent crime, including whether the sentence fell within sentencing guidelines and if any prison time was to be suspended.

Hogan, a Republican, had called such a by-judge listing essential for the public’s understanding of the criminal justice system during a time of soaring violence. His proposal had drawn vehement opposition from the Maryland judiciary.

But the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee deleted the proposed judge-by-judge listing in favor of a jurisdictional delineation, with smaller counties with few judges being grouped together to protect the identities of the jurists in those jurisdictions.

For example, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties would be a listed as single entity, as would Caroline, Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties. Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties would also be combined.

Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., the Senate committee’s chair, said the jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction listing would enable the public to review prison sentences in the localities while ensuring individual judges can exercise judicial independence by sentencing convicts without fear of public rancor from residents who may view the listed punishments as too hard or soft.

A judge-by-judge listing is “not fair to a judge that may deviate from another judge, because the facts (of each case) are different,” said Smith, D-Montgomery. “You can’t compare apples to oranges.”

During floor debate on Senate Bill 392, Republican Sen. Justin Ready moved unsuccessfully to restore the original bill’s listing of judges by name, calling it important to the transparency of Maryland’s criminal justice system.

“The point of this (bill as introduced) was to make sure that we can analyze sentencing and how our publicly, taxpayer funded and paid judges are performing relative to … the standards of the sentencing guidelines and also to their peers and their colleagues,” said Ready, the Senate’s minority whip.

“Judges should not be immune from scrutiny of their record,” added Ready, who represents Carroll County. “What we’re doing is watering down that transparency.”

Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire agreed.

“In the public, there is this perception that judges are letting violent criminals out much earlier than they should and they (the public) don’t understand that,” said Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel. “I think part of the reason for this (bill) is to let the public know who’s doing what and why.”

Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, also urged the Senate to adopt a judge-by-judge report.

The jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction approach would produce “somewhat useless data,” Cassilly said, liking it to a report card that simply states that the class average was a B.

“Well, how did my kid (or judge) do?” Cassilly said. “Is he Einstein or did he fail everything?”

In response, Smith defended the jurisdictional data the bill would provide without interfering with judicial independence.

“You are going to be able to see if Baltimore city varies grossly from Baltimore County or Harford County or Montgomery County,” Smith said. “You are going to be able to make those comparisons and trend analyses and so if there is a (sentencing) problem in a certain jurisdiction, you got it. You’ll be able to see it.”

The Senate defeated Ready’s motion to restore the proposed judge-by-judge listing on a vote of 28-17 before passing the bill 46-0.

“Some transparency is better than what we have, which is no transparency,” Ready said.

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