Monday, January 4, 2010

Two Bites at the Apple: The Power of Suspending Imposition of a Sentence

Dr. Aviram has graciously permitted me to post my thoughts on one aspect of the criminal justice system that I came across in the course of a recent externship. In one particular case before our court, a trial court judge suspended imposition of the defendant's sentence. Although it was not the subject of the defendant's appeal, I was fascinated by the process and felt it shed light on a Judge's role and the power of the criminal justice system. Here is how the process works in a hypothetical where I have changed the facts and names in the case:

Hypothetical
18-year old Adam Smith went out drinking late one night with a friend. After some heavy drinking, they take some cocaine Smith's friend brought along. Intoxicated and high on drugs, they decided to throw fruit at cars from a walkway on an overpass. One orange seriously dented the front hood of a police officer's vehicle as the officer was finishing her shift for the night. The two friends began laughing, but realized it was now time to run. When the police officer caught up to them, Smith's friend immediately gave himself up but Smith defiantly resisted and tried to punch the police officer, striking her left shoulder and forcing the police officer to use her police taser.

On the advice of his public defender, Smith entered a guilty plea before Judge Foltz, known for her cautious leniency towards defendants who admit their crimes and save the taxpayers the expense of a long trial. At sentencing, Smith insisted that his crimes that night were childish indiscretions. He told Judge Foltz that a few days before the evening in question, he found out his father was cheating on his mother and that they would be getting a divorce. Depressed and in need of "self medication" he went out and tried drugs for the first time, and made a series of poor decisions because his friend thought cocaine would make him feel better.
Smith maintained that he was simply rebelling against the situation when he went out and did not know how to handle himself. His acts were the unfortunate byproduct of not being in his right state of mind. He promised it would never happen again. Smith's parents testified on his behalf, and lamented that really, this incident was all their fault. Judge Foltz was reluctant to take Smith at his word, but she sympathized with his argument that it was a youthful indiscretion and found no evidence that Smith was a "bad apple." To avoid letting him get off "scott free" for what are serious offenses but also to not unnecessarily institutionalize an otherwise good kid and ruin his prospects of college, she told Smith that she would suspend imposition of his sentence and place him on probation for a period of three years if he made restitution for any damage. Only days before his three year probation was to be over, Smith robbed an elderly woman at gunpoint at an ATM.

Now Smith went before Judge Holmes, known for his no-nonsense approach to criminal defendants. Because Judge Foltz suspended imposition of Smith's prior sentence, Judge Holmes gets to determine the sentence for all three crimes: the first two crimes (vandalism and assaulting a police officer), as well as the subsequent crime, armed robbery. Holmes throws the book at Smith, giving him the statutory maximum for all of the crimes, including a mandatory 10-year sentence enhancement for using a gun during his robbery, giving him a total of 25 years in jail. Smith now wished he hadn't gotten off "scott free" in front of Judge Foltz, and simply received a reduced sentence.

Commentary
It's easy to see the downside to a defendant where a Judge suspends imposition of a sentence. A subsequent Judge will sentence the defendant knowing what crime the defendant went on to commit, and that inevitably colors a Judge's perception of the defendant's earlier offense. Judge Holmes looked at the mitigating circumstances of the original offenses differently from Judge Foltz, and rather than seeing them as youthful indiscretions, saw a young man committing crimes of escalating seriousness who did not take advantage of the break Judge Foltz gave him. Holmes likely felt that leniency would not do Smith any favors, who did not seem to learn from his mistake when he avoided prison time following Smith's first encounter with the justice system. Moreover, Judge Holmes was forced to make his decision about the subsequent crime while carefully examining the details of a prior crime necessary to formulate his sentence, making the Judge less sympathetic about any mitigating circumstances of the subsequent offense as well.

There's an obvious objection to this tool, which is that the subsequent crime cannot be considered as part of the sentencing of the original offense and vice-versa. Strictly speaking, they can't. But a Judge probably cannot escape what he or she knows about the defendant's subsequent and prior conduct, and thus whatever mental barriers which have been erected to compartmentalize the analysis are likely to be ineffective. A judge may simply be careful to not articulate her sentence for the earlier offense in terms of what happened in the subsequent crime.

The constitutionality of statutes which authorize judge's to suspend imposition of a sentence has already been affirmed. Moreover, it's not clear eliminating such a power would necessarily change the outcome. In Peterson v. Dunbar 355 F.2d 800 (1966), a court affirmed the statute granting the right to Judge's to suspend imposition of a sentence and noted: "If there be any merit in appellant's argument, the obvious alternative, still available to the judge, is to start at the top instead of at the bottom-- to impose the maximum sentence at the outset, suspend its execution and subsequently vacate it if probation is successful, or, should probation be revoked, reduce it to the extent, if any, then felt suitable."

From a Judge's perspective, suspending imposition of a crime is preferable to granting a lesser sentence. Such a tool allows a Judge to distinguish between a "career criminal" and a someone who committed a "youthful indiscretion" while preserving the system's ability to revisit the issue in light of subsequent conduct. It is likely that the tool allows a Judge to grant mercy more often by reducing the cost of leniency and allows a more accurate sentence in a subsequent proceeding because of superior information. Moreover, with the prospect of an even harsher sentence the second time around, it can serve as a greater deterrent to subsequent crime. Of course, this assumes the criminal mind rationally calculates his or her behavior based upon the length of sentence.

Nevertheless, suspending imposition of a sentence may satisfy both the DA-minded and PD-minded alike by keeping one-time offenders out of jail but increasing the sentence of repeat players. Many lawyers would appreciate the increase in discretion such a tool affords a judge, although others might fear the punitive aspects of its application. But on the whole, the ability to suspend imposition of a sentence increases the discretion of a Judge and therefore reduces the power of other institutional actors like prosecutors who might vigorously oppose leniency under any other circumstance.

It's unclear whether suspending imposition of a sentence increases prison time on an aggregate basis or reduces it. If I were trying to generate a hypothesis on this point, I would start by determining how many repeat players are in the system. If the numbers of repeat players are extremely high, then suspending imposition of a sentence is likely to increase prison overcrowding on the whole. Additionally, I would look to what kinds of crimes Judge's typically apply this tool towards to see how much it reduces prison sentences. In my hypothetical the bulk of the defendant's prison sentence is still coming from the armed robbery and the mandatory sentence enhancement.

In any event, it's a fascinating tool and has important implications for sentencing, overcrowding, and judicial economy.

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