A recent decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals is contributing to the controversial history of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
A crime-weary public has often been supportive of mandatory minimum sentences because they require the court to impose a specific punishment when defendants and their crimes meet certain criteria.
In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 184 by a wide margin. The so-called “three strikes and you’re out” law required a life sentence for anyone upon conviction of a third felony.
Many states, including Maryland, passed their own versions of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which vary widely as to the crimes they address and the sentences they impose.
According to a July 11 (Baltimore) Sun story, the state Court of Appeals recently threw cold water on a Maryland law that mandates a five-year, no-parole sentence for certain convicted felons who are subsequently caught with guns.
The appeals court ruling set off alarms in the law enforcement community, as well as among some elected officials and legislators, including Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein suggested that “abolishing the five-year mandatory penalty provision would eliminate one of the key tools the Legislature gave state and local police and prosecutors to fight gun crime.”
No wonder they’re concerned. When this Sun story was published last Thursday, there had been 23 shooting deaths in Baltimore in just the previous three weeks.
The ruling of Maryland’s high court involved a specific point. The felon whose case the court heard had already been convicted and served his time under the five-year, no-parole law. He appealed to be resentenced anyway, and won. Here’s why: The court said that under a different existing Maryland statute, the man could have been sentenced to up to five years with the possibility of parole.
The state argued that prosecutors need the discretion to choose between the two statutes, but the court ruled that when two sentencing options exist, the more lenient one should prevail.
Several lawmakers say they will attempt to thwart the court’s ruling with new legislation in the 2014 session of the General Assembly.
Mandatory sentencing has a checkered history. It has undoubtedly gotten and kept some bad characters off the streets, but it has also subjected some people to disproportionate and unjustified terms of imprisonment.
We would not argue that Maryland’s five-year, no-parole law is appropriate in every single case to which it could apply. But taking this option off the courtroom table doesn’t make sense, either. The state should be able to seek convictions under this statute, and judges need to be able to impose the sentence it mandates when cases warrant it. Let’s face it: Many convicted felons who are later caught possessing firearms should go back to the slammer for five years without the possibility of parole.
We encourage the General Assembly to address this court ruling and pass new legislation that ensures that this important judicial option remains available.