Monday, January 16, 2012

Massachusetts Judges Wield Power over Plea Agreements

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has confirmed a little-known judicial power that permits judges to ignore prosecutors and shorten criminal sentences in plea deals if the Court believes “justice may not have been done.’’

In Massachusetts a judge can trump the DA on the low side.  The judge can lower the length of a sentence but cannot increase the length.  A defendant can make a deal and then go into court and argue for better knowing he cannot get worse.  Is is that fair, is it justice?

If a judge thinks a sentence is too harsh it can be lowered.  The prosecutor who has prepared the case, interviewed witnesses, reviewed the evidence, talked with the victims and made a plea offer can be overruled by a judge who may have reviewed the file before the plea hearing or at most conferred with the prosecutor, defense attorney, police and defendant during the plea hearing.

In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Judicial Court’s decided to make it clear that judges are allowed to shorten sentences because of mitigating circumstances. The state’s statute on judicial powers of sentencing is hazy: A judge cannot “impose a sentence that exceeds the terms of the [plea bargain] recommendation,” but the law says nothing about whether a judge can shorten the sentence agreement, reported the Boston Globe.

In a statement obtained by the Globe, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said he thinks the decision will have a “damaging effect” on the criminal justice system.

“This novel interpretation of a long established rule means that prosecutors, the elected voice of the people, are now the only party in a courtroom who will be held to their word,” wrote Conley, whose office was involved in one of the cases. “Judges are no longer required to honor the terms of any agreement that protects the public’s interest – only a defendant’s interest.”

Tom Hoopes, chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Fair and Impartial Courts Committee, said the decision is part of a nationwide trend of giving judges more power to determine sentencing.

“The buck does, and should, stop with the justice,” Hoopes told the Globe.

Still, he said, he does not anticipate the decision having much of a day-to-day effect on the criminal court system.

“I think cases like this are so rare that they’re not going to really impact the way prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges do the business of justice,” Hoopes said.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Practicing in Massachusetts criminal courts for nearly 10 years, I can say that prosecutors (particularly in the district courts) have few resources, or opportunity to have "prepared the case, interviewed witnesses, reviewed the evidence, talked with the victims." Prosecutors who usually receive and review cases for the first time when the prosecutor is assigned to the session are left with barely an opportunity to review the file and the work that may have been done by someone else previously. Moreover, Dan Conley should know better that a judge's duty is indeed to protect the defendant's rights.

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