Closure can't come to victims of felony crimes until the perpetrator is convicted and sentenced. But when a felon's prison term - particularly one that's been negotiated to the victim's satisfaction - is unexpectedly reduced, the victim's emotional wound is ripped open again, and closure becomes virtually impossible.
That's not justice; it's travesty. Fortunately. it doesn't happen often, but the point is that it shouldn't happen at all. Augusta District Attorney Danny Craig disapproves of settled sentences being cut back, which is why he joins a number of other prosecutors across the state in wanting to see Georgia's sentencing review panels put out of business.
"No other official in our judicial system is allowed to enter judgments without answering to the voters every four years," says Craig. "But this sentence review panel frequently takes the decision of the elected trial judge, approving the plea agreements of the elected prosecutor and counsel for the defendant, and arbitrarily reduces them."
The three-judge panels, appointed by the president of the Council of Superior Court Judges, are empowered to lower - but not to increase - sentences of 12 or more years. Only misdemeanors and murder convictions calling for death or lifetime terms are off-limits to the panels.
The review boards were apparently created to make sentencing more uniform among the state's 49 judicial circuits. One circuit might give a burglar 14 years, another circuit might grant him probation and yet another might sentence him to seven years - the last being about average for the Augusta Judicial Circuit.
Craig has no objection to superior court judges seeking more uniformity in sentencing, but not via the dictates of review panels. Judges can use education, seminars, consultations and other means to promote uniformity voluntarily, without trampling on jurisdictions' right to deal with felons in a way that reflects local values and justice.
A case from the South Georgia Judicial District, in which a review panel cut a plea-negotiated manslaughter sentence from 15 years to eight years, prompted a challenge to the panel's constitutionality that the state's Supreme Court has agreed to hear.
The high court could reaffirm the panels' legality, or it could open the door to striking the panels down. The panels ought to go; even if they're not unconstitutional, they're unconscionable. Craig is right - justice is better served without them.
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