In a major victory for human rights advocates, 30-year-old Cyntoia Brown was granted clemency this week by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. She is set to be released Aug. 7.
Her case got national attention thanks to social media attention from celebrities such as Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and LeBron James. Cyntoia was only 16 years old in 2004 when she killed a man more than twice her age who had picked her up for sex. She was tried as an adult, convicted of first-degree murder and robbery, and sentenced to the mandatory 51 years in prison.
When her story went viral, the tragic facts of her case — born with fetal alcohol syndrome due to her mother’s excessive drinking during her pregnancy; abused and neglected as a child; living on the streets; self-medicating her mental health issues with alcohol and drugs; victimized and exploited by a human trafficker — captured the attention of people across the country.
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People were outraged by the unfairness of imposing such a draconian sentence against a child who had been subjected to so much violence and horror. The harshness of her sentence ignored the mountain of mitigating factors in her case, as well as the great potential that young people have to make positive change and experience transformation.
Children suffer in our criminal justice system
Cyntoia’s case is of special interest to me because in 2008, I served as the prosecutor who argued against her appeal. But I later got to know Cyntoia personally when I had her in a college class that I taught at the prison where she was incarcerated. To be sure, we had some issues to work through when it dawned on us that we had been on opposite sides of the courtroom, but we were able to put the past aside and forge a friendship. Although I once argued in favor of her incarceration, I was proud to support her application for clemency.
Cyntoia has experienced emotional healing from her traumatic past and has diligently worked to become an exceptional person. She has taken responsibility for her actions, developed a positive attitude, and cultivated a deep desire to help others. I am thrilled beyond measure that she’ll be able to build a life outside of prison.
Over the years, I have learned that Cyntoia, though she is an extraordinary person, is not unique. There are approximately 100 other former juvenile offenders in Tennessee who, like Cyntoia, are serving the 51-year life sentence. And across the nation, thousands of people are serving sentences that are decades long for crimes committed while they were children. Unlike Cyntoia, these largely forgotten people have not received a celebrity endorsement. Their names have not become hashtags. They are the hidden casualties of the tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s that drastically increased the sentences for a host of violent crimes and played on unfounded fears of “superpredators” to justify essentially sentencing children to die behind bars.
Scientific data confirm what common sense has always taught us: Children are different from adults. Children, even children who are in their late teens, are not yet physiologically and psychologically formed. They are not as capable as adults of appreciating the consequences of their actions. And children have great potential to overcome even the most horrible circumstances and grow into compassionate, productive people.
Encourage redemption with a second chance
Cyntoia’s story should not demand our attention because she is a rare exception. The opposite is true. She represents many other people who, like her, received harsh sentences as children and underwent a profound and beautiful transformation, yet remain incarcerated with little hope of being released due to sentencing laws that are much in need of reform. Imprisoning people for decades, even after they have demonstrated rehabilitation, is a failure on the part of society to live up to our best values of redemption and second chances.
The national attention being given to the case of Cyntoia Brown should motivate all of us to ask, “How did this happen, and to who else?” Those working to ban extreme sentences for children have made significant strides in recent years, and we should join them.
Together, we can transform a system that for too long has sentenced youthful offenders based on the worst moment of their lives and has shown no regard for their deep remorse and vast potential to transcend their past. We must leave behind purely retributive policies and instead invest in programs that bring about lasting change. Because we know that people, especially young people like Cyntoia, are capable of growing into something profound and wholesome and altogether different from their worst mistake.
No one — not Cyntoia Brown nor any of the thousands of others condemned to overly lengthy prison sentences as children — is beyond hope of redemption.
Preston Shipp teaches for Lipscomb University at the Tennessee Prison for Women.