Cyntoia Brown & the Child Sentencing Factory
Eric Brown, NLC Nashville
About four years ago in Nashville, I was a volunteer prison chaplain. I have many life-long friends inside and outside the prison system who have shared so many stories that linger with me. One of those stories happened in 2014 and centers on a lady named Cyntoia Brown.
I never met her in person (only by phone), but the people who told her story would talk about her brilliance, her kindness, and her growth. Her growth came up most often because she was 16 years old when she was arrested, locked up, and tried as an adult for murder. Forced into prostitution by her pimp, Cyntoia suffered a hard life. At 16, and in fear for her life, she shot and killed a 42 year old man who picked her up for sex. She was convicted and handed a life sentence, which, for Cyntoia, means she can’t even seek parole until she is 67 years old.
One of the people who told me Cyntoia’s story was her first lawyer and my friend, Kathy Evans Sinback. Kathy never talked about the case or experience as being exceptional. Instead, Kathy made clear that Cyntoia and her experience was not special or different from the other juveniles tried as adults. Cyntoia’s story is just one from over 100 youths tried as adults also serving life sentences in Tennessee, which requires 51 calendar years before eligible for parole. So many of these others share the same stories as Cyntoia; stories of child abuse, trauma, and the other factors pushing against them toward a single, terrible, wrong and life-defining moment. To this reality, Tennessee averts its eyes. It provides no confidential counseling, for instance. This forces these individuals to bury their traumas, for fear that any information they share will be turned over to authorities or used against them in their own appeals.
As I mentioned above, Cyntoia is not alone. There are many others like her. Worse, in Tennessee there are thirteen juvenile offenders who are so-called “true lifers.” Though the Supreme Court has ruled that life without parole is inherently “cruel[,] unusual,” and unconstitutional when applied to minors, Tennessee continues to condemn children to perpetual bondage. Some of these were barely 14 years old when they were so cruelly entombed. The state argues that it falls into a loophole because it does not technically impose life without parole; instead, it imposes a “true life” sentence. The Tennessee Supreme Court has approved this artificial distinction, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals called it what is was (unconstitutional life without parole) but failed to strike it down.
There needs to be a legislative fix to these issues. Happily, I hear from Kathy that, today, Cyntoia is dedicated to the issues of juvenile justice. She works to stop the cycle of youth ending up in prison and to change a culture that allows girls and women to fall into human trafficking through trauma bonding (how girls and women see themselves bonded to their abuser and consider themselves not being a victim). Cyntoia defended this issue as a capstone for her college degree prison program at David Lipscomb University. Moreover, Kathy now is the point person for legislation that would change the parole eligibility juvenile offenses for those who are serving 51 years before being parole eligible or will never be parole eligible.
These reasonable reforms for youth call out for action. Cyntoia’s story has energized a movement to push for legislation this session to provide parole eligibility for juveniles. And we can help Cyntoia by signing this petition: petitions.moveon.org/sign/free-cyntoia-brown or writing a letter to The Honorable Richard Montgomery Chairman Tennessee Board of Parole 404 James Robertson Parkway, Suite 1300 Nashville, TN 37243.
Eric Brown is a political consultant, community leader, and podcaster for The Wolves Podcast in Nashville TN. His early work was in children advocacy and community and faith-based organizing around the cradle to the prison pipeline system and mass incarceration.