It would be difficult to find a more disturbing case than that of Cyntoia Brown’s. It reveals much of what’s wrong with the criminal justice system in many parts of our country. The last unjust stroke came last week when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that she must serve out her 51 year sentence. Here’s a quick synopsis and timeline of events:
+ She was put up for adoption at the age of 2, and her life after that was a traumatic spiral of verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and substance abuse.
+ When her mother became pregnant with Cyntoia, she continued consuming alcohol which resulted in fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Her mother also began using crack cocaine when Cyntoia was eight months old, and Cyntoia was then given up to Ellenette Brown. The abuse continued there and Cyntoia became a runaway
+ By the time she was 16, Cyntoia Brown’s sexual encounters had included many rapes, assaults during or before sex, and times when she was under the influence of drugs
+ Brown had a physically and sexually abusive pimp named “Kut-throat” who brandished guns at her and forced her into prostitution.
+ In 2004, at the age of 16, she was sold as a sex-slave by Kut-throat to a 43-year-old Nashville realtor—Johnny Mitchell Allan.
+ By all accounts, Allan continued the abuse and according to Cyntoia often threatened her with a gun. He was an avid collector who had many guns in his home.
+ According to Cyntoia, during one particularly violent evening, Cyntoia was scared Allan was reaching for a gun under his bed and she got a hold of one of Allan’s guns and shot him, killing him.
+ In 2004, she was tried as an adult for killing Allen.
+ A jury convicted the then-16-year-old to life in prison. Under the then-Tennessee law, she would only be eligible for release after serving 51 years of her sentence.
So she is now appealing to a higher court. But the Tennessee legislature can act to pass a special bill to shorten her sentence or the Governor can commute it. Here’s why someone needs to act. A U.S. Supreme Court opinion in 2012 deemed mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders to be unconstitutional but the Tennessee Supreme Court said that under Tennessee law, a life sentence is considered 60 years, and that a 60-year sentence can be reduced by up to 15 percent (9 years) by earning certain sentence credits such as recognition for good behavior or participation in educational or vocational training. So therefore it is not a “mandatory” life sentence.
The law in Tennessee has since changed. Recognizing the reality of human trafficking, anyone 18 or younger cannot now even be charged with prostitution, and that change in law came about because of Brown’s case. Yet, when the law was changed no change was made to Brown’s sentence, so the new law is of little help to her.
But all states must pass a Raise the Age law similar to the one just passed in NY. The law has many useful provisions but in summary, 16 year olds can no longer be tried as adults. In 2019, the same will go for 17 year olds. Recognizing the impact of false confessions on youths charged with crime Raise the Age also requires Parental notification when their children are arrested. Questioning of youths must take place in age-appropriate settings, with parental involvement (including with regards to waiving Miranda rights), and for developmentally appropriate lengths of time. This would have helped Cyntoia who gave a confession. Finally, cases involving 16 and 17 year olds will be heard either in Family Court or a Youth Part within the criminal court. After ten years, convictions of 16 and 17 year olds can be sealed so that the convictions don’t haunt them for life.
Raise the Age is recognition of what scientists have been saying for years: Research into brain development underscores that adolescents are in fact children and that the human brain is not fully formed until the age of 25. As the cognitive skills of adolescents are developing, adolescents’ behavior is often impulsive and adolescents lack the ability to focus on the consequences of their behavior. Because the adolescent brain is still developing, the character, personality traits and behavior of adolescents are highly receptive to change; adolescents respond well to interventions, learn to make responsible choices, and are likely to grow out of negative or delinquent behavior. Of course, these issue are amplified when you add fetal alcohol syndrome and early-age drug abuse.
Sentencing a 16 year old to 51 years -even for murder – should simply not happen. Cyntoia’s sentence is beyond harsh – bordering on cruel and unusual punishment. If her case was so impactful as to make Tennessee correct its prostitution laws, then the Legislature or Governor must act to make Cyntoia’s sentence significantly shorter. Many celebrities have joined her cause and Kim Kardashian is paying for her appellate lawyers so hopefully shining a spotlight on her case will help get her out of jail much sooner than her current sentence requires.
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