On Monday, the governor of Tennessee announced that Cyntoia Brown would no longer spend her life behind bars. At 16, while living with a pimp known as “Kut Throat,” Brown killed a 43-year-old man who hired her for sex and was condemned to more than five decades in prison without parole.
Brown, now 30, was a child who was being severely abused by men and who wore braided pigtails to her trial in 2004. Her case, which got attention from Kim Kardashian and Rihanna, is a clear injustice.
And while her clemency is a victory, it’s also an important reminder that more than a thousand Americans remain in prison for life because of crimes they committed as minors.
“[These] people across the country were told as children they would die in prison,” said Jody Kent Lavy, the executive director of the The Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth. “And the vast majority of them have no celebrity advocates.”
The U.S. is the only country in the world that condemns children to serve life without parole in prison. These extreme sentences peaked in the ’90s, according to Lavy, because of the “superpredator” mentality peddled by criminologists that painted black youth as “godless, fatherless monsters” who could not be rehabilitated.
And while some states have made progress in the past few years by banning Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP), at least half still allow judges to use the sentence, which disportionately affects children of color. In Tennessee, where Brown was convicted, young homicide offenders can still be committed to life without parole or life with the possibility of parole after 51 years.
Despite multiple Supreme Court rulings that limit the use of JLWOP, there is no law that bans it on a federal level.
“This is a stain on our record,” said Lavy. “It reflects poorly on us as a nation and on the value we place on our children.”
Sentencing children to die in prison runs counter to the research about child and teenage brains. Marsha Levick, chief legal counsel and co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, says minors are more likely to take risks, make bad decisions and cave to peer pressure because their brains have not yet fully developed. As a result, they have the ability to change and are much less likely to reoffend as adults if properly rehabilitated.
“Kids are less blameworthy and less culpable for their criminal conduct because of this developmental immaturity,” Levick said. “[Yet] we are condemning them to die in prison.”
Putting young people in prison for life stunts their natural development. It sends children the message that they are monsters who deserve punishment instead of people who can grow. It makes them feel like they are no better than their mistakes. It tells teenagers that they are to blame for circumstances beyond their control.
Lavy says that “putting a child in a cage” will only retraumatize a child rather than “addressing the underlying causes” of their behaviors.
“It’s really a question of how we as a society need to respond when kids commit violence,” she said. “Do we want to tell them they are forever condemned to die in prison? Or do we want to offer solutions that ... really focus on rehabilitation and reintegration?”
Lavy says children who commit homicides should go through the juvenile justice system, which focuses more on development than punishment. Levick says these facilities hold young people accountable in “appropriate ways,” by giving them access to proper education and mental health services and, oftentimes, by creating environments that look more open and welcoming than prison cells.
So long as the U.S. continues to view juvenile homicide offenders as criminals who are incapable of change, many people will continue to spend their lives in prison for mistakes they made before their 18th birthdays.
Cyntoia Brown’s clemency should be a rallying cry for all prisoners in her situation, rather than a one-off celebration.
“My hope is that Cyntoia’s case really sheds light on the broader issue here,” Lavy said, “and [helps] to engage others in our efforts to end life without parole and other extreme sentences for children.”