After a rocky passage through the state legislature (including an override of Governor Larry Hogan’s gubernatorial veto), Maryland’s Juvenile Restoration Act (JRA) became effective on October 1, 2021. The JRA bans courts from imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for minors (i.e., individuals under the age of 18 at the time of the commission of the offense). It also allows courts to make downward departures from the mandatory minimum sentence when sentencing minors charged as adults. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the JRA applies retroactively to allow anyone who has been imprisoned at least 20 years for an offense committed as a minor to file a motion with the circuit court to reduce their sentence. Functionally, this provision creates a pathway to release for minors previously sentenced as adults both to life without parole and to lengthy prison terms.
The court may grant a motion for a sentence reduction under the JRA if the court determines that the interests of justice will be better served by a reduced sentence and that the individual is not a danger to the public. In determining whether to grant these motions, a court must consider a broad range of factors including:
- the individual’s age at the time of the offense for which they were convicted;
- the nature of the offense and the history and characteristics of the individual;
- whether the individual has substantially complied with institutional rules during their incarceration;
- whether the individual has completed educational, vocational, or other programs;
- whether the individual has demonstrated maturity, rehabilitation, and fitness to reenter society sufficient to justify a sentence reduction;
- any statement offered by a victim or a victim’s representative;
- any report of a physical, mental, or behavioral examination of the individual conducted by a health professional;
- the individual’s family and community circumstances at the time of the offense, including any history of trauma, abuse, or involvement in the child welfare system;
- the extent of the individual’s role in the offense and whether and to what extent an adult was involved;
- the diminished culpability of a juvenile as compared to an adult, including an inability to fully appreciate risk and consequences; and
- any other factor the court deems relevant.
In addition to the almost 50 people in Maryland serving sentences of life without parole for crimes that occurred when they were children, the JRA provides an avenue for potential relief for the more than 300 people in Maryland who have already served more than 20 years for an offense that occurred when they were minors. In total, the JRA applies to more than 400 people who otherwise would have had limited opportunities to seek sentence reductions and lead life outside a prison’s walls.
Unsurprisingly, the demographics of people eligible for the JRA reflect the racism inherent in the criminal legal system. 87% of the people initially eligible for JRA consideration are Black. Of Maryland’s population between ages 10 and 17, 31% are Black. But from July to December of 2019, Black children accounted for a stunning 81% of youth charged as adults in Maryland. This means that Black children are more than seven times as likely to be charged as adults than white children. Children charged as adults face much longer sentences than those who go through the juvenile legal system. Thus, disparate charging contributes to more Black children being incarcerated.
The JRA is a step towards righting the individual wrongs of children spending their entire lives incarcerated and the systemic wrongs of a legal system that disproportionately punishes Black people. It is also only a small step. Among other factors, the JRA instructs courts to consider “the diminished culpability of a juvenile as compared to an adult, including an inability to fully appreciate risks and consequences.” This echoes the reasoning relied upon by the Supreme Court in banning first the death penalty and then mandatory life without parole for juveniles—namely, research showing that people’s brains are not fully developed at the age of 18. Similar research shows that people’s brains are not fully developed until their mid-20s, which supports extending the JRA to cover a broader swathe of individuals. The District of Columbia recently passed a similar bill allowing people to petition for a reduced sentence if they were younger than 25 when the crime of conviction occurred.
In collaboration with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, BGL is proud to represent two individuals seeking a sentence reduction pursuant to the JRA. If you have a loved one who is incarcerated and believes they may be eligible to file a motion under the JRA and would like representation from an attorney, the individual should write to:
The Decarceration Initiative
Office of the Public Defender
6 St. Paul Street, Suite 1400
Individuals should include their name, their DOC number, their date of birth, a short summary of the sentence(s) they are serving, the sentence start date(s), and the dates of the underlying crime(s). Attorneys at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and at private firms like Brown, Goldstein & Levy are working together to respond to these requests when possible.