The state’s highest court confirmed yesterday a little-known judicial power to ignore prosecutors and shorten criminal sentences in plea deals if the judge believes “justice may not have been done.’’
In a 6-to-1 decision, the Supreme Judicial Court decided to make it clear that judges are allowed to shorten sentences because of mitigating circumstances. The court also asserted that prosecutors cannot revoke a plea deal if a judge shortens the agreed-upon sentence.
Justice Francis X. Spina, the sole dissenter on the ruling, worried that it could open the door to judges using their power to act as pseudo-defense lawyers.
The statute on judicial powers of sentencing is hazy: A judge cannot “impose a sentence that exceeds the terms of the [plea bargain] recommendation,’’ but the law says nothing about whether a judge can shorten the sentence agreement.
Over the years, a few judges took the ambiguity of that statute to mean that reducing sentences was allowable, and two of those cases prompted the high court’s ruling yesterday that the practice is fair.
“The judge simply exercised a quintessential judicial power, the power to sentence, and ultimately concluded that the agreed recommendation was more severe than justice permitted,’’ wrote Justice Ralph D. Gants, who represented the majority.
Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, whose office was prosecuting one of the men whose case was tackled by the SJC, argued that the ruling will dramatically change the criminal justice landscape.
“It will definitely change the way we do business in the district courts in the future,’’ Blodgett said. “I think it is going to be problematic.’’
In a statement yesterday, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said he thinks the decision will have a damaging effect on the criminal justice system.
“This novel interpretation of a long-established rule means that prosecutors, the elected voice of the people, are now the only party in a courtroom who will be held to their word,’’ wrote Conley, whose office was involved in one of the cases. “Judges are no longer required to honor the terms of any agreement that protects the public’s interest, only a defendant’s interest.’’
Yesterday’s decision centered on two similar cases. In one, a 2009 drug possession arrest, a judge agreed to the sentence set forth in the plea bargain, 2 1/2 years in prison, but changed his mind hours later as he considered the defendant’s history of mental illness and a recent injury that required prescribed painkillers. He shortened the sentence to one year.
Prosecutors filed an appeal in 2010, arguing that the practice of judges curbing sentences in plea deals would undercut prosecutors’ rights.
But the SJC decided against the prosecutors, arguing that agreed-upon sentences in plea bargains only serve as suggestions to judges.
“The existence of a plea agreement, even a plea agreement with an agreed recommendation, does not bind a judge to a sentence the judge later determines to be unjustly harsh,’’ the SJC said.
In the second case, after a judge shortened the sentence in a plea deal, prosecutors wanted to abandon their agreement, saying that they would not have entered into the deal if they knew the judge would lower the sentence.
The SJC decided that reneging on the plea agreement would be a form of double-jeopardy because it would require that the defendant be charged with the same crime twice.
“A guilty plea, once accepted, is a judicial finding of guilt that is as final and as conclusive as a jury’s guilty verdict,’’ Gants wrote. Even if the judge ignores the suggested sentence length, Gants continued, the agreement on a guilty plea still stands.
But Spina said the majority had charted a path that violated the separation of powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches laid out in Article 30 of the state’s constitution.
By making a decision allowng judges to reduce sentences, defense lawyers will be more inclined to pressure judges to reduce sentences, he said.
“The judge might have had a different view of what was fair and just in the circumstances, but if he disagreed, he simply had to say so and let the parties withdraw the plea agreement,’’ Spina wrote.
The lawyers for the defendants, Michael A. Waryasz and Linda A. Harvey, said in separate interviews that the majority made the right call because they properly balanced the rights of defendants with the limited role prosecutors have always played in plea bargains.
Waryasz said judges have always had the right to change plea deals, and the SJC was only clarifying that power to lawyers, prosecutors, and judges who handle criminal cases.
“They are reaffirming that this power exists and it should be used wisely,’’ Waryasz said.
Harvey said court rules have always given the defendant the right to change his or her mind about pleading guilty and have never granted prosecutors the same kind of legal standing.
“I don’t think much is going to change,’’ Harvey said. “I thought the [majority] was right on target. . . . There is no legal authority granting the prosecution the right to withdraw its plea. That’s strictly given to the defendant.’’
Tom Hoopes, chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Fair and Impartial Courts Committee, said the decision is part of a nationwide trend of giving judges more power to determine sentencing. “The buck does, and should, stop with the justice,’’ Hoopes said.
Still, he said, he does not anticipate the decision having much of a day-to-day effect on the system.
“I think cases like this are so rare that they’re not going to really impact the way prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges do the business of justice,’’ Hoopes said.Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com.