Monday, January 7, 2019
Cyntoia Brown Will be Released in August. Now's it's Time for Tennessee to Get Rid of its 51-to-Life Law
Brown was convicted in 2006 for the killing of Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old man who had picked her up at a drive-through restaurant and taken her home. Brown was 16 at the time of the murder and contends she feared for her life. Advocates for Brown have argued that, as a teen who was being sex trafficked, she should not have been tried as an adult and given a life sentence.
We covered Cyntoia's case on a special episode of the Undisclosed Podcast, and her case led me to do a fifty state survey on this blog analyzing juvenile sentencing. My conclusion from that survey was that Tennessee has the harshest juvenile sentencing laws in the country, requiring juveniles with life sentences to serve 51 years before being eligible for parole.
As a result of the project, I did two things. The first was for readers/listeners to reach out to Governor Haslam and ask him to grant Cyntoia clemency. That effort started on February 1, 2018, and, over the past year, you have told me about your efforts to reach out to Governor Haslam and ask for clemency. I have no doubt that each and every one of you played a role in Governor Haslam's decision to grant Cyntoia clemency.
The second thing was to try to work with Tennessee legislators on abolishing Tennessee's 51-to-Life law and replacing it with a law that makes juvenile lifers eligible for parole after serving 15 or 20 years. This is, in effect, what Governor Haslam did in Cyntoia's case:
He declared her eligible for parole after serving 15 years and found that she qualified for parole based on what she had done since becoming an inmate:
But Cyntoia is not alone. There are dozens of other juvenile lifers in Tennessee who are not currently eligible for parole until they have served 51 years. Given that the life expectancy for juvenile lifers is 50.6 years, these juvenile lifers are unlikely to ever live a life outside of prison.
So, what happened with the effort to amend Tennessee's harsh 51-to-Life law? My understanding is that there was broad support behind changing this law but debate over whether juveniles should be eligible for parole after serving 15, 20, 25, or 30 years. Simply put, 2019 is the year to resolve those disputes. Cyntoia Brown's case is Exhibit #1 as to why juvenile lifers should be eligible for parole after serving 15-20 years. Tennessee legislators can and should get this done.