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Cyntoia Brown and an effort to end life imprisonment

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Cyntoia Brown and an effort to end life imprisonment

  • NYPD commander’s text messages show how the quota system persists

  • Sheriff’s office allegedly tipped off ICE in violation of sanctuary law

  • Will Kentucky end felony disenfranchisement?

  • Many life sentences and few commutations in Pennsylvania

  • Courts can’t be in the business of collecting debt owed for jail time

In the Spotlight

Cyntoia Brown and an effort to end life imprisonment

Last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued its decision determining that Cyntoia Brown, sentenced to life in 2006 for killing a man when she was 16, will become eligible for release only after serving a minimum of 51 years in prison. Brown has explained how she acted in self-defense, shooting Johnny Allen, the 43-year old man who had picked her up for sex, after he showed her the rifles and guns in his home and when she believed he was about to harm her. Brown’s case, the story of her life and the violence she experienced as a teenager engaged in survival sex work, has attracted national attention in the last year. [Mariame Kaba and Brit Schulte / The Appeal]

The Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision came in response to a question of law from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Sixth Circuit is considering Brown’s argument that her mandatory sentence of life is prohibited under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which deemed a mandatory sentence of life without parole for youth under 18 to be unconstitutional. The Sixth Circuit had sought clarification on Tennessee’s sentencing laws, to understand if and when Brown could be eligible for release. Governor Bill Haslam is also considering Brown’s petition for clemency and has promised to reach a decision before he leaves office in six weeks. [Lilly Dancyger / Rolling Stone]

The laws under which Brown was sentenced are some of the harshest in the country. Tennessee’s truth-in-sentencing laws, adopted in 1995, abolished parole for the crimes punished with the longest sentences, and doubled the presumptive minimum time a person must serve before becoming eligible for release. The possible sentences for a conviction of first-degree murder for adults are death, life without the possibility of parole, or life. For those under 18 when they are sentenced, the two options are life without parole and life. A life sentence, as the Tennessee Supreme Court clarified last week, is a determinate sentence of 60 years. Someone sentenced before 1995 could become eligible for release after serving 60 percent of that 60-year sentence, but that changed. Anyone sentenced to life after 1995, like Cyntoia Brown, must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence, or 51 years. [Jeannie Alexander / Nashville Scene]

Last year, the Associated Press reported that there are at least 100 other people sentenced as teenagers in Tennessee who must serve half a century before they will become eligible for release. Speaking with the AP, Marsha Levick of Juvenile Law Center called Tennessee’s sentence of life “the most extreme so-called alternative to [life without parole] that I’ve heard.” Legislative efforts to shorten these sentences have so far been unsuccessful. [Sheila Burke / Associated Press]

But Tennessee is not the only state where people, including those sentenced as teenagers, are serving extremely long prison terms. Extreme sentences, even those that seem to fly in the face of constitutional protections, have largely resisted challenge. In April, the Supreme Court declined to hear the petition of Bobby Bostic, sentenced to 241 years for robbery and other non-homicide offenses committed in Missouri when he was 16. Bostic’s lawyers argued that the sentence, under which Bostic would not be eligible for parole until he was 112, was prohibited under the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Florida, that sentences of life without parole for juveniles who did not commit homicide were unconstitutional. Judge Evelyn Baker, at the time of sentencing, said, “Bobby Bostic, you will die in the Department of Corrections.” Bostic will not be parole eligible until 2201. “Nobody in this room is going to be alive in the year 2201,” the judge continued. [Liliana Segura / The Intercept] In a sign of how much attitudes toward lengthy sentences, particularly for young people, have begun to change, Judge Baker went on to write an op-ed for the Washington Post, expressing regret over the sentence she imposed and support for Bostic’s release. Despite wide-ranging support for Bostic’s petition, the Supreme Court declined to consider the case. [BBC News]

Last week, the Sentencing Project launched its Campaign to End Life Imprisonment. The campaign builds on the organization’s research into the impact of life and “virtual life” sentences and calls for sentences to be capped at 20 years. The United States sends people to prison for life at the same rate that Denmark, Finland, and Sweden send people to prison at all. The Sentencing Project’s focus on “life imprisonment” includes what it terms virtual life sentences, sentences of at least 50 years—like Cyntoia Brown’s and Bobby Bostic’s—that have the effect of incarcerating people for a lifespan. Currently, 206,000 people are serving life sentences, 44,000 of them virtual life sentences, a number that has quadrupled since 1984 and makes up 1 out of every 7 people in prison. And while the rate of life sentences has increased sharply across the board, the number of women and girls—many of them with experiences of sexual assault, trauma, and abuse—serving life sentences has gone up even faster. An end to life imprisonment would also overwhelmingly affect Black and Latinx people, who make up two-thirds of those in prison sentenced to life. [Ashley Nellis / Sentencing Project]

The Sentencing Project’s campaign comes at a time of widening recognition that any meaningful change to the U.S. system of incarceration requires tackling the decades-long sentences handed down for an array of convictions. The sentencing of Cyntoia Brown to life in prison is representative of the worst of the practices that built mass incarceration. Dismantling it requires a new consensus that Brown, and the hundreds of thousands spending decade after decade in prison for no justifiable reason, should be free.

Stories From The Appeal


Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by tillsonburg/Getty Images

NYPD Commander’s Text Messages Show How the Quota System Persists. Officers say the language used now is more subtle but still encourages numbers-driven policing. [George Joseph]

Stories From Around the Country

Sheriff’s office allegedly tipped off ICE in violation of sanctuary law: Attorneys for a woman detained by ICE for four months are alleging that the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office informed ICE of her scheduled release from jail, in violation of the California Values Act, the state’s sanctuary law. The law, also known as Senate Bill 54, went into effect January 1. Maria Ortega Rangel, who is undocumented, moved to California from Mexico 18 years ago. In January, she was charged with drug trafficking and initially denied bail, after detectives found heroin belonging to her husband in their home. When a judge ordered her release two weeks later, she was brought back to Santa Rita jail where ICE agents arrived later that day to arrest her. Ortega’s attorneys believe sheriff’s deputies “proactively communicated with ICE” to let them know when Ortega would be released, according to the East Bay Express. Ortega was released from immigration detention in May after a federal magistrate judge found that she was wrongfully denied the opportunity to post bond, and prosecutors have dismissed all charges against her. [Darwin BondGraham / East Bay Express]

Will Kentucky end felony disenfranchisement? Can Kentucky change its draconian disenfranchisement rules, which permanently strip all individuals convicted of a felony of the right to vote? The Appeal: Political Report examines some avenues of reform that organizers are pursuing in a state that disenfranchises 9 percent of its voting-age population and 26 percent of all Black adults. Proponents have pushed a constitutional amendment to restore the rights of people who complete a sentence for most felony convictions, much like Florida just did. But Kentucky, unlike Florida, has no popular-initiative process so the legislature would need to adopt such an amendment. Such measures gained bipartisan support in the recent past but eventually stalled; a Democratic senator plans to introduce a new version in 2019. Advocates also call for targeting what gets charged as a felony in the first place. “According to the state’s Department of Public Advocacy, a majority of juveniles charged with misdemeanor theft in 2016 were white; a majority of those charged with felony robbery were African American,” according to the Political Report. “The latter charge comes with a lifetime ban on voting, but not the former.” [Daniel Nichanian / The Appeal: Political Report]

Many life sentences and few commutations in Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has commuted only two life sentences in his nearly four years in office. The state has more than 5,300 people serving life without parole sentences, the second-highest number in the country. Wolf also has not granted a pardon or commuted a sentence since 2016. Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack, who made improving access to pardons a priority, blames the Board of Pardons, which he oversaw. In four years, the board recommended five out of 200 applications for commutation of a life sentence to the governor. Stack blames a politicized board-appointment process and the requirement of a unanimous vote in favor of commuting a life sentence before an application can be forwarded to the governor. Changing the way the board operates would require a constitutional amendment. An alternative is the passage of a law, introduced unsuccessfully last session, that would make those serving life eligible for parole after 15 years. [Samantha Melamed / Philadelphia Inquirer]

Courts can’t be in the business of collecting debt owed for jail time: A Missouri appeals court ruled Tuesday that courts cannot be involved in the collection of payments from people charged for their incarceration. The decision came in the case of John Wright, who was sentenced to 90 days for failing to pay a taxi bill, and then owed $1,300 for his “board bill,” the charges levied for his time jail. After his release, Wright was ordered to report to court “month after month for show-cause hearings, or payment review hearings.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that “the decision, if it stands, in effect ends a debtors prison scheme that has been common in rural counties throughout the state.” In its unanimous decision, the court found that “the term ‘show-cause hearings’ is never mentioned (in the key sections of law) and is therefore not the proper method by which to collect costs.” [Tony Messenger / St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

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