In an unusual action, the judge presiding over the landmark Atlanta public school cheating trial changed his mind and on Thursday lightened the stiff prison sentences he meted out two weeks ago to high-ranking educators convicted of inflating students’ test scores.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter cut the seven-year terms for three senior administrators down to three years, in line with what prosecutors had recommended.
“When a judge goes home and keeps thinking over and over that something’s wrong, something is usually wrong,” Baxter said. “I want to modify the sentence so I can live with it.”
Attorneys for the convicted educators raised no objections to the lighter sentences, yet said they would continue to move forward with their plans to appeal.
The Atlanta community has been sharply divided over the punishment of the educators, all African Americans who worked at schools in struggling, low-income neighborhoods. Before the original sentencing, many — including Andrew Young, the civil rights leader, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta mayor — pleaded for leniency and questioned the wisdom of jail time, arguing the educators had no criminal records and posed little threat to society.
When Baxter doled out heavy penalties two weeks ago, he argued that lengthy prison sentences for the administrators were fitting because the officials had led a system of widespread corruption that harmed thousands of children. The convicted educators, he emphasized, had consistently refused to accept responsibility for their roles in the scandal, which he called “the sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town.”
While many criticized the sentences — which were longer than some violent criminals face — others insisted that prison time would send a stern warning to educators across the city and the nation. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed voiced firm support for the judge’s initial punishment, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that severe penalties were appropriate because “children were involved.”
The Atlanta trial stemmed from the largest known case of academic misconduct in U.S. history and was the first in the nation in which educators were accused of racketeering.
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