In April 2021, the Office of the Public Defender launched its Decarceration Initiative, a project to reduce mass incarceration in Maryland by providing representation to people eligible to file motions to reduce their sentences under the newly-enacted Juvenile Restoration Act.
Overview of the Act
Recognizing that young people convicted of serious crimes are capable of changing and safely rejoining society, the Maryland General Assembly in April 2021 enacted the Juvenile Restoration Act (JRA). This Act (which may be found here) allows people who have served at least 20 years of a sentence for a crime committed when they were under the age of 18 to file a motion asking the circuit court to reduce their sentence. It takes effect on October 1, 2021.
The JRA allows the sentencing court to reduce such a sentence if, after a hearing, it finds that (a) “the individual is not a danger to the public” and (b) “the interests of justice will be better served by a reduced sentence.”
When deciding whether to reduce a sentence, the court is required to consider:
(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 circumstances at the time of the offense, including any the individual’s 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 factor the court deems relevant.
In passing the JRA, the Maryland legislature recognized that children who commit serious crimes are nonetheless capable of growth and change and rehabilitation, and that after a period of time they can be safely released and should have an opportunity to build a life outside of prison.
The Office of the Public Defender's Plan
The Office of the Public Defender (OPD) is committed to providing representation for the purpose of seeking a reduced sentence under the Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA) to all eligible individuals who are unable to afford a private attorney and who apply for its services.
In April 2021, the OPD sent application packets to more than 250 people in the Division of Correction (DOC) who may be eligible to file a motion under the JRA in 2021. (If you know of someone who would be eligible to file in 2021 but has not received an application packet by mid-May 2021, please click here.)
The OPD will be gathering materials relevant to the motion from DOC records and other sources to document the positive accomplishments of our clients and show that they can be safely released.
To increase our bandwidth, we are recruiting and training private lawyers who are willing to represent OPD clients pro bono on these motions. (If you are a lawyer and are interested in our pro bono program, please click here.)
After we have gathered some or all of the necessary documents, we’ll be assigning specific attorneys to specific clients. As soon as this assignment is made, we’ll send a letter to the client notifying them of who will be representing them. That attorney will meet with the client (in person, by phone, or by videoconference) to discuss the motion prior to filing it. The attorney will be responsible for preparing and filing the motion and representing the client at the hearing.
How to Apply for Representation
If an incarcerated person has not been contacted by the OPD but believes they may be eligible to file a motion under the JRA and would like representation through the OPD, they should write to:
The Decarceration Initiative
Office of the Public Defender
6 Saint Paul Street, Suite 1400
Baltimore, MD 21202
In that letter, it is helpful if they can indicate they want help filing a motion under the JRA and include the following information that will help us make a preliminary assessment of their eligibility:
Their name and DOC number;
Their date of birth;
A short summary of the sentence(s) they are serving, the sentence start date(s), and the date(s) of the underlying crime(s).
If it appears that the person may be eligible based on this information, the OPD will send them an application packet. Please understand that the OPD can only assist people if they are eligible under the statute and are unable to afford private counsel to represent them in filing and litigating a motion.
Joining the Pro Bono Lawyer Effort
In times of crisis, members of the legal community have come together to support social change and fight injustice. From the abolitionist lawyers of the 1800’s to the civil rights lawyers of the 1900’s to the members of the legal community that fought the 2017 Muslim travel ban and defended Black Lives Matter protesters, lawyers have played an important role in advancing social reforms.
Today, we face the crisis of mass incarceration, with the United States incarcerating a greater portion of its population than any other country. This has hit communities of color especially hard. Although only about 30% of Maryland’s population are Black people, a 2019 study by the Justice Policy Institute found that “Maryland leads the country in racial disparity among those serving long prison terms,” noting that “[m]ore than 70 percent of people in Maryland prisons and nearly eight in 10 people in prison who have served 10 years or more are black.” Lifers have rarely been paroled in Maryland, even though lifers who have served a substantial amount of time have extremely low recidivism rates.
The JRA gives juvenile offenders who have earned it a second chance to rejoin their families and communities and build a life outside of prison walls. But they need lawyers to help them make their case. In light of the number of people who will be eligible and will need legal assistance, we are recruiting and training private attorneys who are willing to represent one or more of the Office of the Public Defender’s clients pro bono in their effort to obtain their freedom. If you are interested or would like to learn more, please contact Brian Saccenti at email@example.com.