Maine lawmakers consider expanding Supreme Judicial Court's ability to review sentences
Mar. 2—Prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred Thursday over a bill that seeks to allow anyone convicted of a crime in Maine to appeal the fairness of their sentence.
Currently, only people convicted of a felony can appeal their sentence to the state's Sentencing Review Panel, which refers any potentially unjust sentences to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Meanwhile, the thousands of Mainers sentenced of misdemeanor charges can only appeal their sentences if they exceeded the statutory limits. L.D. 363 would change that, allowing people to also appeal smaller jail sentences, fines, restitution and probation.
Supporters of the bill say the appeals process is an important check on the state's judges, who have the authority to impose critical and life-changing sentences.
Defense attorney Walter McKee, who submitted testimony on behalf of the Maine Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said at a Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday it's unfair that a judge could impose a sentence of 364 days to a county jail for a minor misdemeanor crime "without any review at all."
McKee also said the use of probation, fines and restitution all restrict a person's liberty and can result in "life-long economic hardships" and are worthy of review.
However, Shira Burns, executive director of the Maine Prosecutors Association, said the bill would exacerbate the backlog plaguing Maine courts.
Maine district attorneys' offices don't have a separate branch for appeals, which involve writing briefs and arguing before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court — all while prosecutors "are still expected to be in court every day dealing with their unmanageable caseloads."
Others worry the bill would prolong the criminal justice process and negatively affect victims.
Andrea Mancuso, public policy director for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, asked lawmakers Thursday to consider that a majority of those convicted for domestic violence crimes are sentenced for misdemeanor-level offenses, which already take "months, if not years" to resolve. There's a risk L.D. 363 could cause those cases to drag on even longer.
For anyone seeking a sentencing review, L.D. 363 could mean some people would await the results of their appeal out of custody.
Victim advocacy groups are already "grossly underfunded," Mancuso said, and court-provided advocates are struggling with "incredible caseloads" that make it difficult to adequately prepare victims or notify them when their alleged perpetrators are released from jails or enter a plea agreement.
OPENING A FLOODGATE?
Of the nearly 4,000 felony convictions entered in 2022, Maine's Sentencing Review Panel considered 40 appeals, but only four were ultimately sent to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, according to data that legislative analyst Julie Finn presented to the committee on Thursday.
If that same rate is to be applied to the nearly 24,700 misdemeanor convictions entered in 2022 that would lead to roughly 250 new sentencing appeals. Finn told lawmakers she would provide more detailed data next week.
"Those who would suggest it will open up a floodgate, it will not," McKee told lawmakers. "Because it hasn't opened up the floodgate for felonies, either."
But there's still concern the bill would drive up costs for court resources.
"We would expect a significant number of misdemeanor cases to come in if this law were to pass," Finn said.
Before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court even considers a sentencing appeal, it must pass the three-member Sentencing Review Panel's consideration first. That panel looks at cases with a strict level of criteria meant to detect any characteristics of egregious or unreasonable sentencing.
"The right to appeal is kind of critical to our system. Our judges are not judges that can do whatever they want," McKee said. "They are subject to, in most cases, somebody else looking over their shoulder, just to make sure it's right."
Hours before the Judiciary Committee heard testimony on L.D. 363, the Supreme Judicial Court released an opinion ordering a new sentence for Rayshaun Moore in Penobscot County, who was found guilty of murder in May 2021. The justices wrote that the trial judge wrongfully considered Moore's decision to plead not guilty and proceed with a trial as a "lack of remorse" and "an aggravating factor" in whether he would be sentenced to more than the minimum 25 years.
Moore was ultimately ordered to serve 32 years behind bars. The sentence was deemed illegal and is but one type of error that is found in trial courts.
In January, the Supreme Judicial Court also agreed to vacate Mark Penley's two concurrent life sentences in Oxford County, where he was convicted of murder after shooting his ex-girlfriend and another man in front of her two young children. Justices wrote that the judge in that case was wrong to consider Penley's 10-year history of domestic violence before establishing a base-level sentence.