Judicial Modification of Sentences in Maryland
48 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2009
Date Written: Fall 2003
In Maryland, judges who hand out criminal sentences have very broad power to subsequently reduce those sentences. The sentencing judge may reduce a sentence at any time for any reason, as long as the defendant has filed a motion to modify the sentence within ninety days. Not only does the judge retain this power throughout the entirety of the defendant's sentence, it also allows him to modify a sentence to Probation Before Judgment (“PBJ”) after the original sentence was served.
Although judges in most states have some power to revise sentences, in almost all others there is a time limit ranging from one week to one year, unless the modification is to correct a mistake or an illegal sentence. In the very few other states that give judges a longer period to modify a sentence, there are normally severe restrictions imposed.
In the last few years, the broad power of Maryland judges to modify sentences has come under attack from many sources, including prosecutors, victims' rights advocates, members of the state legislature, and the media. Those opposing the practice have cited a few specific cases where the power has been abused, such as when violent criminals serving long sentences were released early without notification to victims. Recent amendments to the law have added significant procedural safeguards to the process, such as a requirement of a hearing, notice to victims, and a requirement of a decision, with explanation, on the record.
Yet opponents of the practice would still like to see it abolished or significantly curtailed. One bill, introduced during the 2002 legislative session, would have imposed a one-year time limit on any sentence modifications. The bill was quite controversial and received support from the then Lieutenant Governor, as well as victims' rights groups and prosecutors. The bill was opposed by both the criminal defense bar and by virtually all trial judges.
During legislative hearings, it became clear that no one had an accurate picture of just how often and in what kinds of cases sentence modification was used. This was because virtually no jurisdictions or individual judges kept accurate and complete records of the granting and denial of such requests.
The authors of this Article were members of a task force formed by the Maryland State Bar Association (“MSBA”) to conduct a study of the practice in Maryland. The most important piece of this study was a survey of all district and circuit court judges in Maryland. The Survey questioned the judges about their use of sentence modification, including how often they used the procedure, how long after sentencing, the types of cases in which modification was used, and the reasons for its uses. The results of the Survey were reported to the criminal justice council of the MSBA and to the Maryland General Assembly.
This Article grew out of that Survey and represents the views of the authors only and not the MSBA. Part II of this Article will first explain the law relating to, and history of, the judges' revisory power in Maryland. Part III will examine the law in other states and in federal courts. The Article will then look at how the purposes of sentence modification fit with various theories of punishment. Part V will review arguments for and against the procedure and explore alternatives for accomplishing the same goals. Part VI will report and interpret the results of the Survey of Maryland judges. Finally, the authors will give their conclusions as to the use of sentence modification in Maryland and their recommendations for any changes in the law.
Keywords: criminal law, sentencing, Maryland, judicial modification of sentences, judges, MSBA, Maryland State Bar Association, surveys
JEL Classification: K14, K19, K39, K49
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation