Sentencing Guidelines Overview
The system of voluntary/advisory guidelines for circuit courts is the centerpiece of sentencing reform in Maryland. The guidelines have been in place statewide since 1983. The concept of judicial sentencing guidelines was introduced in the late 1970s by the judiciary in response to judicial perceptions of unwarranted sentencing disparity. A judicial Committee on Sentencing was formed by the Court of Appeals and a host of alternative sentencing systems were studied (e.g., determinate sentencing, mandatory sentencing, sentencing councils). In April 1979, the Committee approved a system of voluntary sentencing guidelines for use in circuit courts only. In determining the appropriate sentence range, the guidelines were designed to take both the offender and offense characteristics into account.
The voluntary sentencing guidelines are displayed in three separate matrices, one for person offenses, one for property offenses, and one for drug offenses. The sentence recommendation is determined by the intersection of a defendant's criminal history score and offense seriousness score on each two-variable matrix. Recommended sentence ranges are wide, sometimes encompassing a range of 10 or more years. The average width of the recommended ranges on the person matrix, for example, is 8.85 years. The average width of the range for property offenses is 4.05 years and the average width for drug offenses is 2.22 years.
When the guidelines were originally drafted by the Judicial Committee on Sentencing, the Committee set an expectation that two-thirds of sentences would fall within the recommended sentencing ranges and when sentencing practice resulted in departures from the recommended range in more than one-third of the cases, the guidelines would be revised. Since that time, the Commission has adopted the goal of 65% as the benchmark standard for guidelines compliance.
The sentencing guidelines are advisory and judges may, at their discretion, impose a sentence outside of the guidelines. If judges choose to depart from the sentencing guidelines, the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) 14.22.01.05(A) mandates "The judge shall document on the guidelines worksheet the reason or reasons for imposing a sentence outside of the recommended guidelines range." In practice, however, the judiciary has generally neglected to provide an explanation for departure. For example, in 61% of the fiscal year 2005 cases that resulted in a departure from the guidelines, the reason(s) for departure was not provided.