As you probably know, Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown. Brown, 30, was sentenced to life in prison after she, a teenage sex trafficking victim, killed a man who paid to have sex with her. Brown had appealed her life sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life behind bars violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. That appeal ended her in becoming eligible for parole at age 69 — after 51 years.
Many people were outraged that Brown’s sentence was so harsh, both because she was a teenager when she committed the homicide and because she was arguably defending herself from sex trafficking.
“I just thought, this is crazy that a juvenile, especially one with a mitigating circumstance, will be sentenced to 51 years before they even had a chance to get out,” State Senator Raumesh Akbari told the New York Times. “I believe in second chances, particularly when we are talking about children.”
Akbari and others hope to use the national attention garnered by Brown’s case to propel reform legislation. The bill, expected by the end of February, would allow those who were under 18 at the time of their offenses to be evaluated for parole after only 20 years, not 51.
Further, the bill would implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on juvenile life sentences by eliminating life sentences for those who were under 18 at the time of their crimes. And, it recommends that the parole board should take mitigating factors into account, such as youth, peer pressure and trauma.
Currently, at least 148 people are serving life without parole in Tennessee — or with parole available only after 51 years — for crimes they committed as juveniles.
Many, if not most of them have mitigating circumstances in their cases, just like Cyntoia Brown did.
“The bottom line is most of these kids who end up doing very horrific crimes or tragic crimes have all in some ways been victimized,” says one reform-minded juvenile court judge. “When we lock them up for life, we discount their ability to rehabilitate and become better citizens.”
Some tough-on-crime politicians and victims’ rights activists oppose the reforms, citing the horrific nature of the crimes leading to life sentences.
In granting Brown’s clemency, governor Haslam noted the seriousness of her crime but called the sentence too harsh. Moreover, Brown had taken “extraordinary steps” to rehabilitate herself during the 15 years she had spent in prison.
“Transformation should be accompanied by hope,” he said.