An Inside Look at Baltimore Plea Negotiations

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In a packed Baltimore courtroom, Judge Charles Peters calls cases one by one, summoning prosecutors and defense attorneys to his bench. Under cover of a white noise machine, the lawyers are ready to deal, the Baltimore Sun reports. One defendant was caught with a loaded handgun while smoking marijuana. Another was pulled over by officers who found an Uzi in the trunk. A third bolted from a car and ran from police, who found a gun ditched nearby. Prosecutors presented plea offers for each. Peters reduced the state’s offer in one deal, increased it in another, and approved a third unchanged. Total jail time for the three cases: 17 months. Critics, including Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and Gov. Larry Hogan, have blamed at least some of Baltimore’s historic levels of violence on judges. They want criminals who are caught with guns to get tougher punishments.

Ninety-three percent of felony convictions in Baltimore are plea deals, and three-quarters of them are settled by Peters, 61, a former state and federal prosecutor, who presides over the “reception court.” It was created a decade ago to centralize and expedite cases. It’s the first and last stop for most cases. Prosecutors and defense attorneys can present plea deals for Peters’ approval. When they disagree, Peters may propose a compromise. He can balk, and increase what the state is looking for. Negotiations at the bench are not audible to the public. The Sun obtained audiotapes of days’ worth of proceedings and bench conferences from Peters’ court. The tapes reveal behind-the-scenes deliberations that go into plea deals. Peters most often accepted the state’s sentencing offer. When he reduced the state’s offer, it could be cut by months or years, with no objections by prosecutors. On rare occasions, he increased the sentence the state proposed.

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