Juvenile Restoration Act pushes for resentencing for youthful offenders

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Paul LaRuffa suffered five gunshot wounds in 2002, all at the hands of a 17-year-old boy, who he said “left [him] for dead.”

“But, obviously, I was blessed enough to survive,” LaRuffa said at a news conference Monday morning.

Channeling his pain into advocacy, LaRuffa spoke in favor of a bill sponsored by Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s) and Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) seeking to give people convicted of life sentences as minors a second chance at release.

The Juvenile Restoration Act would allow courts to consider resentencing juvenile lifers after they’ve spent a minimum of 20-years in prison and have demonstrated that they’re no longer a danger to the public.

LaRuffa stressed that this bill’s passage would not guarantee that anyone is released.

“What this bill does is it gives hope: it gives hope to people, who are facing 30, 40, 50, 60 years behind bars, and the only thing they know is that they will die behind the same walls they look at today,” he said.

Lewis said that the Juvenile Restoration Act would provide offenders staring down long sentences a meaningful chance at review through sentencing hearings involving their victims.

“We believe that … it’s not morally defensible for [people] to die in jail for things that they did when their brains weren’t fully developed,” he said.

West clarified that these offenders will have spent more than half of their lives in prison before they would be eligible to be resentenced. He said that a lot of the cells in their bodies will have regenerated by that point, making them “quite literally” different people.

“But beyond this,” West continued, “a person’s brain doesn’t fully mature until he’s 25, and with maturity comes different thinking, different attitudes, a different approach to life.”

In recent years, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that childhood brain development should be taken into account when convicting juvenile offenders, as well, ruling it unconstitutional to sentence minors to death or mandatory life without parole sentences.

“People can change; redemption is possible,” said West. “When that happens, as a society, we should rejoice. Keeping someone in prison who committed a youthful crime and who has spent decades in jail but has transformed his life and is no longer a threat to society is hard to defend.”

Lewis said that the law wouldn’t only put the state in line with Supreme Court precedent, but with neighboring states, too: Washington, D.C., Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio all have passed legislation to address juvenile lifers while Maryland lags behind.

LaRuffa said Monday that these bills have led to the release of nearly 700 people, almost none of whom have reoffended.

That was evidenced by Eddie Ellis, a former juvenile offender who has spent the past 15 years advocating for justice and reentry reform. He currently works with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

“Personally, I went to prison at the age of 16 because someone lost their life in my case, unfortunately, and I take full responsibility for my actions then, as well as now,” Ellis explained. “Justice should not be about revenge but about rehabilitation, and within rehabilitation is responsibility and accountability.”

“I was one of the kids that was condemned at the age of 16, and I’ve proven in last 15 years that change is possible,” he continued. “And there’s thousands of us who are home who have also proven the same thing.”

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