Judicial Transparency Is Needed

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By Nic Kipke
Delegate, District 31

In my view, one of the primary duties of government is to keep its citizens safe from criminals who would do them harm. The legislature passes laws with that intent, and the executive and judicial branches execute those laws. Three branches of government each act as an independent leg of a stool of justice – without all three legs doing their job, the stool cannot stand.

In a growing number of cases, it seems the failure of the judiciary has made this stool unsteady. In far too many cases, criminals with violent records are quickly released and light sentences are frequently given out. The continued plague of violent crime in Baltimore City can, in part, be attributed to a failure of some in judiciary to deliver adequate sentences to the worst offenders. According to the Baltimore Police Department, 60 percent of those convicted of gun crimes in Baltimore City do not serve serious time and are released back onto the streets. This is unconscionable. This failure affects not only the citizens of the city but also every citizen in the state. This failure does not rest squarely on the shoulders of judges but also prosecutors who seek to “plea down” to lesser offenses.

Too often, the judiciary seems to have placed itself above the other branches of government. As a body, it does not like to be questioned. In our modern time of ever-growing government transparency, the judiciary operates behind an outdated cloak of institutional secrecy. Its decisions are made out of the direct eye of the people, and there is little direct accountability. The vast majority of Maryland’s judges are elected officials, and yet they sit, nearly completely removed from the very people who elect them. This must end.

There are several bills this session designed to make the judiciary more open and transparent. Governor Larry Hogan has introduced and I am co-sponsoring the Judicial Transparency Act of 2019, which will require the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy to publish detailed information on the actual sentences handed down by judges for violent crimes across the state. Maryland is one of the few states that ban the video recording of criminal court cases. I am cosponsoring legislation that will allow the media to film the sentencing portion of a criminal trial. The bill has protections for witnesses and victims. It is my hope that this transparency will help hold the judiciary accountable in exercising their duties.

While I would hope these measures would put an immediate end to the premature release of violent criminals, I know that institutional change can take time. This is why I have also introduced the Murder and Repeat Violent Offenders Registry Act. Like Maryland’s sex offender registry, this bill requires anyone convicted of murder, or anyone who has received a second or subsequent conviction for a violent crime, to register upon the completion of their sentence. This will be a searchable database that citizens can make use of to know if a violent criminal has moved into their neighborhood.

There is no one simple answer to the plague of violent crime in our state. But I believe these measures are certainly part of the solution. All levels of government must be held accountable in keeping our citizens safe. These legislative proposals are a positive step in that direction.

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