What Does the Cyntoia Brown Case Mean for Criminal Justice Reform?

 /  Feb. 7, 2019, 5:22 p.m.


The Cyntoia Brown Case

On August 7, 2004, sixteen-year-old Cyntoia Brown was waiting in a Sonic Drive-In in east Nashville. She knew that this was a place where men went to pick up prostitutes, and she was under pressure from her pimp to make money fast. For the last few weeks, Brown and her pimp, known as “Cut Throat,” had been rotating between different Nashville motels. Brown later described how he had raped her, forced her to have sex with other men at gunpoint, and physically abused her. She was afraid that if she left him, he would kill her.

When Johnny Allen Mitchell, forty-three, solicited her for sex, she agreed to go home with him. He began to tell her about his successful career as a sharpshooter in the military and showed her his collection of guns. Months later, she would describe feeling frightened by his behavior. After they ate and watched TV together, he took her to his bedroom. She claims that he grabbed her violently, and then reached under his bed, which made her fear that he was reaching for one of his guns. She pulled a gun of her own out of her purse and shot him in the head. Then, she took his wallet and some of his guns back to Cut Throat. The next day, she was arrested for Mitchell’s murder.

Before her case could be brought to trial, a judge in a juvenile court had to decide whether to try her as a juvenile or as an adult. According to Tennessee state law, a juvenile can be tried as an adult provided that a judge gives a “discretionary waiver” in a hearing that typically cannot be appealed. If the judge rules that there are reasonable grounds to believe the defendant is guilty and not mentally ill and the crime is sufficiently serious, the defendant will be tried in an adult court. Brown was being tried for first degree murder, and she did not deny that she had shot Mitchell. The judge decided to disregard her family history of mental illness and ruled that she would be tried as an adult, with no way for Brown to appeal the decision. If Brown had been tried as a minor, she would have been released at nineteen. As it stood, she could have been in prison for life.

After Brown spent two years in jail, her case went to trial in 2006. The prosecution argued that her sole motive had been robbing Mitchell. She was convicted of first degree murder, felony murder, and aggravated robbery. Brown’s lawyers advised her not to take the stand, so she never had the opportunity to testify on her own behalf. Evidence about her abusive childhood and her condition of fetal alcohol syndrome, which is a neurodevelopmental disorder associated with high levels of substance abuse and juvenile delinquency, was not admitted. Brown was sentenced to a life sentence of sixty years with a concurrent eight years in prison for aggravated robbery. According to Tennessee state law, those in prison for life are only eligible for parole after serving 85 percent of their sentence. This means that unless Brown was able to successfully appeal the decision, she would have no chance of leaving prison before she was sixty-nine.

How the United States Treats Juvenile Offenders

In the United States, criminal justice reformers first began to push for separate courts for juvenile offenders in the nineteenth century. Their argument was that juvenile offenders are often the victims of their environment and are more likely to reform than their older counterparts, so the state should take on a rehabilitative rather than a punitive role in their lives. In 1899, Cook County opened the first rehabilitation center for juvenile offenders, and others soon followed. In 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) established the juvenile court system as we know it today. It was passed after social justice concerns were raised about the way the juvenile courts treated young offenders. It was meant to establish juvenile courts that put the focus on rehabilitating young offenders rather than on punishing them for their crimes.

Beginning in the 1970s, states began to pass stringent laws that undid most of the work of the JJDPA as a wave of fear about increased crime rates influenced public policy. The logic was that the best way to deter rising rates of juvenile crime was to increase juveniles’ sentences. These reactionary laws allowed “waivers,” or the transferral of juvenile offenders like Brown into adult courts, to increase. When a juvenile is tried as an adult, their sentences rarely take into account their youth and can stretch long into adulthood. Since the 1970s, studies have repeatedly shown that increasing the likelihood that someone will be caught is an effective way to deter crime while increasing sentences is not, but the laws based on disproven views on deterrence have remained. Since the 1990s, the number of juvenile offenders has actually decreased, yet more juveniles are being tried in adult courts than ever before.

Cyntoia Brown Wins National Sympathy

In 2011, Dave Birman, an award-winning filmmaker, worked with Brown to make a PBS documentary called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. When Charles Bone, a prominent attorney based in Nashville, saw the documentary, he decided to take on her case. He appealed the original ruling arguing that Brown’s fetal alcohol syndrome meant that she was not fully responsible for her actions. When this failed, Bone and the other attorneys who were working on her case appealed it using the 2012 Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which stated that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison. This appeal failed because technically Brown could leave prison in fifty-one years, nine years shy of the sixty years constituting a life sentence, if she exhibited model behavior.

Birman’s documentary brought national attention to the ways in which the criminal justice system and the social safety net had failed Brown and continue to fail other victims of human trafficking. This newfound attention around her case motivated Tennessee to reform its treatment of juvenile sex offenders. Today, Tennessee law has changed so that juveniles like Brown who previously would have been charged for prostitution would be treated as victims of human trafficking instead.

As the appeals to Brown’s case dragged on, public sympathy for her did not wane. Celebrities including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West sparked a viral social media campaign with the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown in 2017, and petitions to grant her clemency got thousands of signatures. Kim Kardashian West even hired a prominent defense attorney to join Brown’s legal team.

This month, the outgoing governor of Tennessee Bill Haslam granted Brown clemency. Haslam decided that, in light of the complications surrounding the case and her model behavior in prison, Brown should not have to complete her sentence. After fifteen years in prison, she will be released on supervised parole this August. To many of the people who have been following her case, however, this is not soon enough, as a petition pressing the Tennessee state government to release her sooner already has over one hundred thousand signatures.

Will the attention around her case lead to institutional reform?

In Tennessee, 183 individuals are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. Nationwide, there are nearly twelve thousand. According to the Supreme Court decision Montgomery v. Louisiana, these men and women are able to retroactively appeal their sentences now that sentencing children to life without parole is unconstitutional. However, each one of them will have to appeal their sentences separately, and anyone whose sentence is just shy of sixty years will be unable to appeal their sentence.

Cyntoia Brown was lucky. The forensic psychologist who interviewed her got in touch with a filmmaker who made a compelling documentary that won her national sympathy. With the help of celebrities, a national advocacy effort, and lawyers willing to work on her case pro bono, she will now be able to build a life for herself outside of prison. The hundreds of other offenders in prison for offenses they committed as juveniles cannot rely on luck, and justice shouldn’t need celebrity intervention.

Voters nationwide are beginning to view criminal justice reform as a necessity. Reform is not just a priority for Democrats: 48 percent of Republicans support major reform of the criminal justice system. This means that the retrograde laws that have been in place since the wave of paranoia around rising crime rates in the 1970s are susceptible to reform. The more attention cases that highlight the injustices of the criminal justice system get, the more lawmakers will make its reform a priority. Already, the public attention around Brown’s case has motivated London Lamar, a representative in Tennessee’s state assembly, to introduce a bill that would prevent trying the juvenile victims of human trafficking as adults when they commit violent crimes. The incoming governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee, supported Halstam’s decision to grant Brown clemency and has promised to make criminal justice reform a priority during his time in office.

For Brown, Haslam’s decision is significant no matter how much it affects criminal justice policies going forward. While in prison, she has been mentoring young female inmates who have faced troubles like her own. She plans to continue that work after she is released on parole, volunteering to help at-risk youth. As she wrote in her statement after Haslam announced his decision to grant her clemency, “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 License. The original was taken by Weiss & Parz and can be found here.

Claire Potter

Claire Potter is a first-year potential political science major at the University of Chicago interested in journalism and international relations. On campus, she is a member of the Women in Public Service Project and is a Fellows Ambassador at the Institute of Politics. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and exploring the city.


<script type="text/javascript" src="//downloads.mailchimp.com/js/signup-forms/popup/embed.js" data-dojo-config="usePlainJson: true, isDebug: false"></script><script type="text/javascript">require(["mojo/signup-forms/Loader"], function(L) { L.start({"baseUrl":"mc.us12.list-manage.com","uuid":"d2157b250902dd292e3543be0","lid":"aa04c73a5b"}) })</script>