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Cyntoia Brown and the Years Lost by Juvenile Lifers

In The Princess Bride, Prince Humperdinck has Wesley strapped to a device known as The Machine, which has a lever that can be raised from 1 to 50. When the lever is turned to 1, the machine sucks away one year of the victim’s life, with each tick of the lever corresponding to another year taken away. […]

In The Princess Bride, Prince Humperdinck has Wesley strapped to a device known as The Machine, which has a lever that can be raised from 1 to 50. When the lever is turned to 1, the machine sucks away one year of the victim’s life, with each tick of the lever corresponding to another year taken away. In 2010, Deborah LaBelle brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of twelve Michigan prisoners who had been given mandatory life without parole sentences based upon crimes committed when they were children. During the course of the litigation, as clients kept dying, LaBelle realized that she was confronting a real world example of The Machine.

The average life expectancy of a person born in the United States is about 79 years. The United States Sentencing Commission has calculated a life expectancy for all prisoners of 64 years and uses that number for sentencing decisions. LaBelle, the Project Director of the ACLU of Michigan Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, dug into the numbers of Michigan prisoners given life sentences. For adult lifers, life expectancy dipped to 58.1 years. And then there were juvenile lifers, the population LaBelle was representing in her lawsuit. For that group, life expectancy was lower still: 50.6 years. Put simply, when a young person is given a life sentence, she has, on average, more than a third of her life sucked away.

Death penalty advocates make a lot of hay out of the fact that only 58 countries still have capital punishment, with a mere five nations, including the United States, accounting for 95% of executions worldwide. But the American sentence of juvenile life without parole is even more aberrational. In 2008, Connie de la Vega and Michelle Leighton from the University of San Francisco School of Law studied juvenile sentencing laws from across the globe. Their conclusion: The United States is the only country in the worldthat imposes a sentence of juvenile life without parole.

Four years after this study, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Miller v. Alabama. Based upon findings from psychology and brain science showing fundamental differences between the brains of adults and children, the Court held that juveniles cannot be given mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Instead, this country’s second highest punishment can only be given to a child after an individualized sentencing hearing that takes into account factors such as her upbringing and capacity for change.

As things stand today, half of all states and the District of Columbia have gone further, actually or constructively banning the juvenile life without parole sentence. In many other states, there is an option to give a juvenile a sentence that allows for the possibility of release after serving 20 or fewer years in prison. In some other states, that number is 25 or 30 years. That leaves just four states in which a young person who commits murder has no hope of release until spending more than 30 years in prison.

As has been demonstrated by the case of Cyntoia Brown, Tennessee is the biggest outlier. Cyntoia was born to a mother who drank a fifth of hard liquor nearly every night of her pregnancy and didn’t see a doctor until the day that Cyntoia was born. After Cyntoia was born, her mother soon abandoned her before returning to kidnap her from her new guardian, and Cyntoia would ping pong among parents throughout her childhood while suffering from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

In 2004, at age 16, she was repeatedly raped by her friend’s boyfriend and physically and sexually abused by a man named “Cutthroat” who forced her into prostitution. One night, she went to a local Sonic, which was known as a hot spot for prostitutes. There, she was approached by 43 year-old Nashville real estate agent Johnny Mitchell Allen. She gave him a price of $200 for sex. He countered with $100. They met in the middle. He bought her some food from Sonic and took her to his house.

Cyntoia says she felt uncomfortable while at Allen’s house, which was packed to the gills with guns, and she used one of them to fatally shoot him after she thought he was reaching for a gun to shoot her. The State claimed the murder was premeditated, using the fact that Cyntoia stole Allen’s wallet, some of his guns, and his truck after the shooting. Cyntoia contends she was acting in self-defense and that she was disoriented after the shooting and fearful that Allen was still alive and would track her down.

After Cyntoia was convicted of first-degree murder, there were only two sentencing options, the same options that still apply for all young homicide offenders in Tennessee: (1) life without parole; and (2) life with the possibility of parole after serving a minimum of 51 years. Cyntoia was given the latter sentence, meaning she will almost certainly die in prison. Despite being described as a model inmate who has earned an Associate’s Degree and is working toward a Bachelor’s Degree, she has no hope of being released until she’s 68 years old. That’s nearly 18 years past the life expectancy for juvenile lifers found by Deborah LaBelle in her study. Indeed, in her study, LaBelle was aware of only one juvenile lifer who had reached age 68: he’s confined to a wheelchair and has been in permanent hospital care for many years.

There is, however, hope on the horizon. Last year, Tennessee legislators proposed a bill that would end juvenile life without parole in the Volunteer state and allow for the possibility of release after 15 to 20 years. That bill never made it to a vote, but it should be reintroduced this year and has the support of Democratic Representative Raumesh Akbari and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. But this is also a bipartisan issue. Doug Overbey and Jeremy Faison, the representatives who initially introduced the bill, are both Republicans, and allowing for the possibility of parole for juvenile lifers is a fiscally conservative issue. It’s estimated that every year an inmate spends in prison costs a state $25,000, meaning that an inmate like Cyntoia serving 51 years would cost the state of Tennessee $1.275 million. Unless the law is changed, it will also almost certainly cost Cyntoia her life.