Opinion: Cyntoia Brown’s clemency: One battle won in a war still fought

A case for juvenile life sentencing reform in Tennessee and beyond

Earlier this month, Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a woman who was convicted at age 16 in 2006 for killing a man who had hired her as a prostitute. According to court documents, Johnny Alan, 43, had taken Brown to his home and shown her his firearms before the two got into bed together. At one point, Brown says she thought he was reaching under the bed for a gun. She took a handgun out of her purse, shot him and fled, taking guns from the home and money from Alan’s wallet. By the time Brown is released this August, she will have been in prison for 15 years.

Ms. Brown’s story has garnered significant media attention throughout the years. In 2011, PBS released the documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” which details her adolescent years and follows her for six years after her crime. In 2017, Rihanna shared an Instagram post calling for Brown’s release. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West, Cara Delevingne, LeBron James and Snoop Dogg followed suit, leading to a social media frenzy surrounding the young woman. Leading up to her crime, Brown had run away from her adoptive family and found herself living with a man who called himself “Kut Throat,” who abused and raped her, threatening her life if she did not make money for him as a prostitute. To many, it was not hard to see how a girl so afflicted by abuse could come to suspect the worst of a man she was in bed with.

In the wake of her clemency, Cyntoia Brown is again making national headlines. With Vanderbilt University situated just 15 minutes away from the Tennessee Women’s Prison, where Ms. Brown resides, this case hits particularly close to home.

One of the biggest topics of focus? Tennessee’s current sentencing laws. In Tennessee, when someone is convicted of a first-degree murder charge, they face one of three sentences: the death penalty, life without the possibility of parole and life with the possibility of parole. Of the three, Ms. Brown received the latter, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 60 years. However, it wasn’t always like this. Prior to 1995, individuals convicted of first-degree murder would be eligible for release after completing 60 percent of their 60-year sentence and, with good behavior credits, could be eligible for parole as early as 25 years into their sentence. However, due to legislation signed in 1995, no defendant can use sentence reduction credits to lessen their sentence by more than 15 percent, meaning the earliest one could be eligible for parole is after 51 years in prison. That is double the national average for life with parole. (A life with the possibility of parole sentence traditionally ranges between 15 and 30 years in nearby states.) Cyntoia Brown would not have been eligible for parole until she was at least 67 years old, had she not been granted clemency.

Spurred by the national spotlight, Tennessee legislators have been working to create new legislation that would allow those convicted under the age of 18 to be eligible for parole after serving at least 20 years. State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, who has spearheaded this measure, also recommends an elimination of life without parole sentencing for juveniles.

When it comes to sentencing, juveniles are constitutionally different from adults and deserve to be treated as such.

The sentiments expressed by Sen. Akbari align closely with those expressed by the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences are a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. This ruling, and that of Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), which allowed for the retroactive application of the Miller ruling, set the precedent that life without parole sentencing should not be used except in unique circumstances involving “irreparable corruption.”

While the rulings in the Miller and Montgomery cases only apply to mandatory JLWOP sentencing and not to other similar de facto life sentences like the one Cyntoia Brown received, the spirit of these two cases, and the Supreme Court cases that set the stage for them, remain the same. When it comes to sentencing, juveniles are constitutionally different from adults and deserve to be treated as such. In the 2012 Supreme Court majority opinion, Associate Justice Elena Kagan emphasized the importance of judicial discretion when determining juvenile sentencing, describing adolescence as marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.” The use of a mandatory life sentence operates under an assumption of “incorrigibility” or an inability to be reformed, a situation that the Supreme Court, through previous cases and amici briefs, finds to be rare in juvenile cases.

the call for action must not stop at clemency.

The lack of discretion for judges and juries in deciding life sentencing for juveniles is disheartening when one considers cases like Cyntoia Brown. While her clemency is certainly an exception, her situation is not. According to a national survey of juvenile lifers, roughly 80 percent of them witnessed violence in their homes and more than half witnessed violence in their neighborhoods weekly. Nearly half were subject to physical abuse. Many experienced educational challenges, with two in five having been in special education classes and 84 percent having been expelled or suspended from school at some point leading up to their incarceration. Some were homeless, in group homes, in treatment centers, living with friends or in detention facilities. In fact, 18 percent did not live with a close adult relative in the time before their incarceration. For women in particular, roughly 80 percent experienced physical abuse and 77 percent experienced sexual abuse.

While the attention given to Cyntoia Brown’s case has shed light on juvenile life sentences in the United States, the call for action must not stop at clemency. Clemency is a retroactive and individualistic act, one that requires the Governor’s office to remedy harsh sentences which were mandated by state laws. It’s like fighting off symptoms of an illness for which we hold the vaccine. In order to keep situations like Cyntoia’s from recurring at the outset, we need legal change.

Without substantive change, many people in situations similar to Ms. Brown’s will die in prison. In 2005, U.S. Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. Yet, with 51-year sentences still on the table, the end result is still the same. According to a study of Michigan prison populations, the average life expectancy for individuals serving juvenile life sentences is 50.6 years, and for adult life sentences it is 58.1 years. Some might live to see the end of their 51-year sentence, but many will not.

Twenty-nine states still have juvenile life without parole as a sentencing option. In Tennessee, 185 individuals are serving at least 51 years in prison for crimes they committed before their eighteenth birthday. Some were as young as 14.

A ban on mandatory de facto life sentences like Tennessee’s 51-year minimum does not mean a ban on harsh sentences. Such sentences would still be an option in extreme cases. But we must make sure the tamer option still exists as well. To deny judicial discretion on juvenile cases is to deny children their lives before they’ve even had a chance to live them.

According to reporting from the New York Times, we should expect to see Sen. Akbari’s new bill introduced toward the end of February. Just as Kim Kardashian West and other celebrities rallied around Cyntoia Brown’s release, we must fight for all who have suffered as she has. For the youth caught in the throes of tumultuous circumstances, we must give them another shot at a life not spent in prison. If the Cyntoia Brown case has taught us anything, it’s that not everyone who kills matches our mental picture of a murderer. Sometimes it’s a scared young girl in bed with a strange man who wants to pay for the use of her body.


Emma Stapleton is a junior Public Policy Studies major with a focus in Criminal Justice. She serves as the Public Relations Chair for the Vanderbilt Prison Project. She can be reached at emma.v.stapleton@vanderbilt.edu.

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Emma Stapleton
Emma Stapleton ('20) is a junior Public Policy Studies major with a focus in Criminal Justice from Clarendon Hills, IL. After spending her first two years studying at Middlebury College in Vermont, she is happy to be enjoying some good 'ole Tennessee warmth. In her spare time she enjoys photographing for the Hustler, playing guitar and daydreaming about skiing.

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