Yesterday U.S. District Judge Gina M. Groh rejected a plea deal for a Maryland couple accused of trying to sell secrets about nuclear propulsion systems on US Submarines to foreign countries. The judge rejected the deal saying they were not “in the best interest of this community, or, in fact, this country.” The judge went on to say that, “There are lower-level drug dealers that go to prison for way longer than 36 months.”
Johnathan Toebbe accepted a plea deal where he could be sentenced to between 12 and 18 years in prison. His wife, Diana Toebbe, accepted a deal for up to 3 years in prison. The couple have two school age children. After the judge rejected the plea, both Jonathan and Diana Tobbe withdrew their guilty pleas.
For a plea deal to go forward, the judge has to accept it. Judges can and do reject plea deals, but it is relatively rare. What struck me after reading about this case is that I have never heard of a judge rejecting a plea deal because it is too harsh (if any of our readers know of a case, I’d love to hear about it in the comments and/or email me). Judge Groh seems to be implying that 36 months is a lot of time for a lower-level drug dealer. But, the only other instance of her rejecting a deal that I could find, after an admittedly short and not very thorough search, was that she rejected a deal in 2017 for a man accused of supplying drugs to two people who died from fatal overdoses. Her concern then was also, apparently, that the deal for 15 years in prison was too low.
Judge Groh is acting well within her discretionary power to reject plea deals. My question is simply why do judges not do this when the deal is too high? If prosecutors were forced to justify high sentences, and explain why a particular sentence is, in Judge Groh’s words, “in the best interest of this community, or, in fact, this country” maybe it would have an impact. What if judges demanded that prosecutors look to rehabilitation possibilities and not so quickly to prison and jail? What if judges asked prosecutors to consider the impact on the community and family of time in prison and that they consider the costs to society as a whole of imprisoning people? Judges have always had the power to do more to prevent and lesson mass incarceration. It is a shame that the only time judges seem keen to exercise their power to reject plea deals is when they think the sentence is not harsh enough.