Errors in Judgment
Were hundreds of criminals given the wrong sentences because lawyers messed up a basic work sheet?
With the stakes so high—months and years of freedom gained or lost—how could Maryland's Sentencing Policy Commission have been so sloppy? For academic research—a matter trivial by comparison—it's common to have data entered independently by at least two typists, whose output is then cross-checked for accuracy. Yet it turns out that complacent bureaucrats weren't to blame for the sentencing mistakes. The work sheet had to be filled out by the state attorney prosecuting the case, with the final form signed and approved by the defense attorney (who, if he was doing his job properly, would have done the work sheet calculations independently). The commission had, by design, handed off the task of work sheet completion to parties that it assumed would have every incentive to get the numbers right, but it apparently never accounted for widespread incompetence in Maryland's legal profession.
The Maryland Sentencing Commission has been responsive to feedback from Bushway, Owens, and Piehl. The executive director of the commission, David Soulé, assisted the researchers in going through the worksheet records to understand how to locate the full set of erroneous recommendations. And independent of the researchers' findings, the Commission had already been at work developing an automated worksheet with the explicit goal of eliminating errors.
One lesson from the case of Maryland's work sheet errors is that multiple levels of evaluation helped to undo some of the damage (though you might not see it that way if you spent an extra couple of months in the slammer because your attorney can't do arithmetic). It's a crucial insight given that states around the country have limited or abolished the discretion of parole boards as a result of Truth in Sentencing laws. More generally, crime and punishment in America remains rife with prejudice and inconsistencies. The poor and uneducated are convicted at rates disproportionate to their crimes; jurists and judges alike are biased and sometimes outright irrational. Keeping some checks and balances in place—like the moderating effects of parole boards—might help to keep the justice system a little more just.
Correction, Oct. 26, 2009: The article originally stated that the errors were in sentencing recommendations provided to judges by the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy. The errors were the result of miscalculations by the person completing the sentencing recommendation worksheet, not the commission. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)