Slate has reported that, apparently, the error rate for sentencing calculations in Maryland is about ten percent. That's right, ten percent. "A system designed to make justice more predictable was producing errors in one out of every 10 trials."
That's not, actually, the incredibly stunning part. Apparently the cause of the error rate wasn't that people were lazy, or bad at math, or didn't understand the guidelines well enough to do the calculations. No, the error rate is caused by something much more depressing:
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.
I'm a Maryland lawyer, and I find this completely depressing. If all the errors resulted in lower sentences, I guess I could see this making sense. Prosecutors, particularly in state courts, can be excused from making a mistake or two if the sentence winds up where their intuition for the right sentence is consistent with the guidelines calculation.
What's scary is that defense lawyers let bad guidelines calculations though. Obviously, everyone has a bad day, but a ten percent error rate is way outside of the range of acceptable errors.
This is just unacceptable.
If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.