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Cyntoia Brown’s Release Raises Questions About Tennessee’s Strict Sentencing Rules

Cyntoia Brown will be released from prison Wednesday, having served 15 years for killing a man while a victim of sex trafficking as a teenager. Former Gov. Bill Haslam granted Brown full clemency in January, saying her life sentence was too harsh. Brown’s case raises questions about the state’s strict sentencing guidelines. 

Brown was convicted of first-degree murder in 2006 after she admitted to killing Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old man who paid her for sex. Brown contends she shot Allen in self-defense when he reached for a gun.

While in prison, Brown earned both an associate’s and bachelor’s degree. She also mentored at-risk youth, in the hopes of helping young girls to avoid the struggles she faced growing up.

Brown’s story garnered national attention from criminal justice reform advocates and celebrities like Kim Kardashian West. Yasmin Vafa of Human Rights Project for Girls says Brown’s case put a human face on an issue she calls the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline, in which victims of sex crimes are criminalized, often for acting in their own defense. 

“It’s a really important reminder that we have to take a really nuanced approach to issues around criminal and juvenile justice reform,” Vafa says. “We have to understand the histories and backgrounds of young women and girls and what it is that’s actually propelling them into the system.”

Tennessee law requires people convicted of first-degree murder to serve at least 51 years of a life sentence. The law makes no provision if they were teens when they committed the crime.

The U.S. Supreme Court did rule in 2012 that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole. But that decision didn’t apply to Brown’s sentence, because she would have been eligible for release — even if she would have had to wait more than half a century behind bars.

Since January, several state lawmakers have proposed legislation inspired by Brown’s case.

One bill (SB 842/HB 876), sponsored by Sen. Raumesh Akbari, would give juveniles with a life sentence a chance at parole, usually after 30 years. Another, (HB 17/SB 24) introduced by Rep. London Lamar days after Brown was granted clemency, would provide protections to minors who harm or kill someone that commits a sexual offense against them.

“Essentially, we are trying to make sure that we’re not mistaking victims of these horrible crimes for criminals themselves,” Lamar told the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee at a hearing in February.  Neither bill has yet been put to a vote before the full General Assembly.

Over her 15 years in prison, Brown received her associate’s degree and has mentored other female inmates. Now, she’ll have a second chance at life.

“With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people,” Brown said in a statement shortly after her sentence was commuted. “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”

As theGrio notes, Brown’s story has served to rally celebrities and lawmakers, juvenile justice reformers and critics of Tennessee’s harsh life sentences for teens, those working to expose child sex trafficking and others highlighting racial inequities in the justice system.

Her case made national news and prompted pleas from several celebrities, most notably Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West and Ashley Judd before a clemency hearing.

Netflix has acquired the rights to the Cyntoia Brown’s story, the company announced on last month.