Judge Leonard Townsend does what he wants when it comes to sentencing convicted felons. He argues that the tough sentences he sometimes metes out are perfectly legal. But in some cases, the Michigan Court of Appeals disagrees and sends cases to the Wayne County Circuit Court judge for resentencing. And in some cases, Townsend tells the high court in no uncertain terms that he has no intention of changing his mind.
“I’ll resentence him according to my discretion and not their discretion,” said Townsend, about a 1989 case that the Michigan appellate court remanded to him twice.
In 1999, state legislators passed stiffer sentencing laws for violent offenses, and made it more difficult for judges to depart from them, says attorney Sheila Robertson Deming, who is considered the state expert on sentencing guidelines. Judges may depart from the guidelines if they give a “substantial and compelling” reason.
But what if a judge continually departs from the guidelines? What recourse is there?
“It can be sent back to the appellate court again and again,” says Deming.
Some notable cases in which Townsend departed from the guidelines:
• In 2001, Randal Joyce was convicted of possession with intent to deliver 50 grams of heroin or less at a bench trial before Townsend. (Possession with intent to deliver means the person was either selling or sharing drugs.) The Michigan Department of Corrections recommended lifetime probation, which is a penalty mandated by state law. But Townsend ignored state law and the corrections department.
“And this court finds it inappropriate for the people who work for the Department of Corrections, where there is a definite conflict of interest, to appoint themselves as the sentencing judge. … It is not even a good recommendation,” he said.
Townsend sentenced Joyce to 3 to 20 years in prison and added, “And I think the message should be sent to individuals that it is not routine to walk in this court, and walk out of the court on probation. … You have to be afraid, and take it, ‘I’m afraid to sell this, but I’m going to do it. But if I get caught, I’m going to jail.’”
In his final statement, Townsend said, “If the Court of Appeals thinks that my sentence is incorrect, let them reverse me.”
The higher court did just that. They remanded the case to another judge for resentencing since Townsend disregarded the corrections department’s recommendation and because of the judge’s “stated preference to impose a sentence which includes incarceration.”
Judge Gregory Bill resentenced Joyce last year to “time served” — he had spent 432 days in prison.
• In 2000 Armondo Graham was convicted of possession with intent to deliver 50 grams or less of marijuana at a bench trial before Townsend. Although the statutory guidelines recommend a maximum of nine months in prison, the judge sentenced Graham to 14 months to four years in prison. The Michigan Court of Appeals remanded the case to Townsend in December, stating that he needed to give a reason for departing from the guidelines and also must inform Graham that he may appeal the sentence. Earlier this month, Townsend resentenced Graham to nine months to four years in prison.
• In 1999, Derrick Williams was convicted at a bench trial before Townsend of possession with intent to deliver 50 grams or less of cocaine and fleeing the police. Townsend sentenced him to 3 to 20 years for the drug charges and 3 to 5 years for fleeing the police. The sentence was appealed. The state appellate court remanded the case before another judge for resentencing. Last year Judge Patricia Fresard sentenced Williams to lifetime probation for the drug charges and two years in prison for fleeing the police.