Addressing Racial Disparities in Maryland’s Juvenile Justice System: What the Juvenile Restoration Act Could Mean for Maryland’s Black Youth Tried as Adults

*Rebecca Odelius

I. Introduction

The United States is the only country that allows convicted criminals to serve a life sentence without parole for crimes they committed under the age of eighteen.[1] Over the last sixteen years, several Supreme Court decisions have placed limits on when and how individuals convicted under the age of eighteen can be sentenced to life without parole.[2] On the state level, twenty-five states and the District of Columbia no longer allow life sentences without parole for individuals who committed crimes while younger than eighteen.[3] Those states now include Maryland with the recent passing of the Juvenile Restoration Act, which took effect October 1, 2021.[4]

The Juvenile Restoration Act is one of five bills that made up a police reform package of legislation presented to Governor Hogan in April 2021.[5] Though the governor vetoed three of the bills presented, including the Juvenile Restoration Act, and left two others unsigned, the Maryland General Assembly quickly overrode the vetoes.[6]

II. SB 494: The Juvenile Restoration Act

The Juvenile Restoration Act laid out what courts are authorized to do and what courts are prohibited from doing when sentencing juveniles who are tried as adults.[7] In part, statutes enacted by The Juvenile Restoration Act prohibit courts that sentence minors convicted as adults from “impos[ing] a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole or release.”[8] The new statutes also allow courts to hand down sentences below the state-mandated minimums for any juvenile convicted as an adult.[9] The law also retroactively applies to those previously convicted and sentenced to life without parole if the individual (1) was younger than eighteen when the crime was committed and (2) has already served more than twenty years.[10] For those previously convicted to obtain relief under the Juvenile Restoration Act, an individual first needs to file in the Circuit Court where the sentencing occurred.[11] Next, the individual is entitled to a hearing, in which the court considers several factors when evaluating the request, and then issues a written decision.[12] The statutory list of factors considered by the court is non-exhaustive but includes the following:

(1) the individual’s age at the time of the offense; (2) the nature of the offense and the history and characteristics of the individual; (3) whether the individual has substantially complied with the rules of the institution in which the individual has been confined; (4) whether the individual has completed an educational, vocational, or other program; (5) whether the individual has demonstrated maturity, rehabilitation, and fitness to reenter society sufficient to justify a sentence reduction; (6) any statement offered by a victim or a victim’s representative; (7) any report of a physical, mental, or behavioral examination of the individual conducted by a health professional; (8) the individual’s family and community circumstance at the time of the offense, including any history of trauma, abuse, or involvement in the child welfare system; (9) the extent of the individual’s role in the offense and whether and to what extent an adult was involved in the offense; (10) the diminished culpability of a juvenile as compared to an adult, including an inability to fully appreciate risks and consequences; and, (11) any other factors the court deems relevant.[13]

Proponents of the Juvenile Restoration Act, and the police reform package in general, attribute its passage to “the growing movement against police violence and white supremacy in the wake of the killing of George Floyd . . . .”[14] The Juvenile Restoration Act marks a significant legislative response to the systemic racial disparities seen in today’s justice system.[15]

III. Maryland’s Addition of Racial Impact Reports

The Maryland General Assembly recently joined Connecticut, Iowa, and New Jersey legislators in including racial impact reports in its analysis of future legislation.[16] The Racial and Equity Impact Note for the Juvenile Restoration Act includes studies on both a national and a state level that shed light on the racial disparities present in the current juvenile justice system.[17] Specifically, the report points out the overrepresentation of Black and Hispanic youth in the juvenile justice system.[18] The report goes on to state that, “African American youth, or 10- to 17-year-old children identified as Black, are more than seven times as likely to be criminally charged as adults than their White peers in the State.”[19] The report makes clear the prevalence of the disparity in treatment of Black and White youth in the criminal justice system. The author defines this disparity as “an unequal outcome experienced by one racial or ethnic group of the target population as contrast[ed] against a different racial or ethnic group in the target population.”[20] With the recent inclusion of racial impact reports, Maryland legislators have a greater responsibility to directly address the racial inequalities present in the juvenile justice system.

IV. Conclusion

Although the Juvenile Restoration Act is a step in the right direction, it is by no means a solution to the systemic racism seen in the juvenile justice system. The Juvenile Restoration Act offers no guarantees to those individuals sentenced to life without parole before the bill, and it does not provide future juveniles tried as adults any assurance that they won’t spend the duration of their lives in prison.[21] The Juvenile Restoration Act also limits how many times an individual can file a motion to modify sentence.[22] Each time a court denies a motion to modify sentence, the applicant must wait three years to re-file, and an individual may not file more than three times.[23]

When Governor Hogan vetoed the Juvenile Restoration Act, he focused on the possibility of re-traumatizing victims’ families.[24] However, he failed to address the fact that, “[g]iven existing data and scholarly research, the bill has the potential to reduce the inequitable impacts on Black youth criminally charged as adults in the State.”[25] As defense attorneys across Maryland begin filing motions under The Juvenile Restoration Act, seeking relief for clients languishing in prison for crimes they committed as minors, criminal justice reformers are waiting to see if the new bill truly provides an opportunity to decrease the racial disparities in Maryland’s juvenile justice system.

*Rebecca Odelius is a second-year day student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she is a Staff Editor for Law Review and a Royal Graham Shannonhouse III Honor Society Scholar. Rebecca serves as a law scholar for Professor Vallario’s Contracts I class as well as a research assistant for Professor Vallario in the field of Trusts and Estates. During summer 2021, she interned for the Maryland SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Victims. Prior to law school, Rebecca taught middle school English and authored several young adult novels.


[1] Josh Rovner, Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview, Sent’g Project (May 24, 2021), https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/juvenile-life-without-parole/.

[2] See generally Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010); Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (deciding two cases jointly); Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016); Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S. Ct. 1307 (2021).

[3] Rovner, supra note 1.

[4] Md. Code Ann., Crim. Proc. § 6-235 (West 2021); S.B. 494, 2021 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Md. 2021); Juveniles Convicted as Adults – Sentencing – Limitations and Reduction (Juvenile Restoration Act), Md. Gen. Assemb., https://mgaleg.maryland.gov/mgawebsite/Legislation/Details/sb0494 (last visited Oct. 28, 2021) (cataloguing the legislative history of Senate Bill 494 and adoption as the Juvenile Restoration Act).

[5] Hannah Gaskill & Danielle E. Gaines, General Assembly Overrode Hogan’s Vetoes of Police Reform Bills. We Break Down the Votes, Md. Matters (Apr. 10, 2021), https://www.marylandmatters.org/2021/04/10/the-general-assembly-overrode-hogans-vetoes-of-police-reform-bills-we-break-down-the-votes/.

[6] Id.

[7] See § 6-235.

[8] Id. § 6-235(2).

[9] See id. § 6-235(1).

[10] See id. § 8-110(a).

[11] See id. § 8-110(b)(1).

[12] See id. §§ 8-110(b)(2), (d), (e).

[13] Id. § 8-110(d).

[14] Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, Maryland Bans Sentencing Children to Life Without Parole, The Appeal (Apr. 13, 2021), https://theappeal.org/politicalreport/maryland-bans-sentencing-children-to-life-without-parole/.

[15] See Rovner, supra note 1.

[16] Tyler Waldman, General Assembly to Conduct Racial Impact Reviews of Criminal Justice Bills, WBAL (Feb. 1, 2021), https://www.wbal.com/article/498332/124/general-assembly-to-conduct-racial-impact-reviews-of-criminal-justice-bills.

[17] See generally Dep’t of Legis. Servs., Racial and Equity Impact Note, S.B. 464, 2021 Sess. (Md. 2021), https://mgaleg.maryland.gov/Pubs/BudgetFiscal/2021rs-SB494-REIN.pdf.

[18] Id. at 3 (“In 2019, 57% of children under the age 18 arrested for murder were Black or African American and 29% were Hispanic or Latinx.”).

[19] Id. at 6.

[20] Id. at 7.

[21] See Weill-Greenberg, supra note 14; Rovner, supra note 1.

[22] See Md. Code Ann., Crim Proc. § 8-110(f).

[23] See id.

[24] Letter from Governor Larry Hogan, Maryland Office of the Governor, to Bill Ferguson, President, Maryland Senate (April 8, 2021), https://governor.maryland.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/SB494-Juvenile-Restoration-Act-Veto-Letter.pdf (vetoing the Juvenile Restoration Act).

[25] Dep’t of Legis. Servs., supra, note 15, at 7.

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