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Cyntoia Brown and the Years Lost by Juvenile Lifers

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 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.

Proposed Federal Trafficking Legislation Has Surprising Opponents: Advocates Who Work With Trafficking Victims

Proposed Federal Trafficking Legislation Has Surprising Opponents: Advocates Who Work With Trafficking Victims


Congress is marking “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month” by considering major anti-sex trafficking legislation in both houses. The bills use different approaches but would both target websites, such as Backpage, where sexual services are advertised.

Yet neither bill will result in justice for victims of human trafficking, anti-trafficking advocates and service providers told The Appeal. If passed, they say, the legislation stands to do more harm than good by failing to distinguish between trafficking victims and sex workers, eliminating sex workers’ source of income, and hampering anti-trafficking investigations.

The Senate bill, SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), which has 66 co-sponsors, was introduced by Ohio Republican Rob Portman, who last year held a Senate hearing with Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill on Backpage and its alleged role in sex trafficking. (Just before the hearing, Backpage closed its “adult” ads section; those ads then migrated to their dating section.)

If enacted, SESTA would amend the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), a provision of which — Section 230 — protects website operators from most types of legal liability for content created by their users. SESTA, Sen. Portman said in a January floor speech, “provides justice for victims of online sex trafficking because they’ll have the opportunity to sue — hold these websites accountable that knowingly facilitate crimes.”

The House bill, FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), would update the century-old Mann Act, which prohibited prostitution across state lines. Introduced by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), FOSTA was later amended by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who expanded its scope from sex trafficking to all prostitution. It introduces a new federal crime: using or operating “a means of interstate or foreign commerce with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.”

According to Wagner, FOSTA is about “putting an end to these websites” — like Backpage, which has already successfully defended itself against state civil and criminal suits under the CDA’s current language. Operators of any website where sexual services are advertised could be charged under the new federal criminal statute proposed by FOSTA. Like SESTA’s backers, FOSTA’s proponents say this would make it easier to take legal action against websites like Backpage, though, unlike SESTA, FOSTA does not open up the path for civil suits, and it encompasses websites that facilitate prostitution, not just sex trafficking.

The legislation is meant to protect victims of sex trafficking, but many advocates who work directly with people who have been trafficked oppose both bills. “They think that shutting down any online platform is going to miraculously end human trafficking,” Jessica Peñaranda, director of strategic initiatives at the Sex Workers’ Project, told The Appeal. “They think it’s an easy way to do this.” But real solutions aren’t so easy, she says.

The position she and other advocates are voicing against SESTA and FOSTA is one that tends to get drowned out. Typically, high-profile anti-trafficking lobbying groups that lead the charge for federal legislation, such as World Without Exploitation (led by former Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Lauren Hersh), or Christian right groups like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly known as Morality in Media), oppose not only sex trafficking but sex work itself.

“As long as there is a global sex trade, ours will be an unsafe, unjust world,” World Without Exploitation wrote in a statement supporting SESTA. But there are other anti-trafficking advocates — including trafficking victims and survivors — who do not oppose sex work, but who are seldom heard from.

Laura LeMoon, an anti-trafficking and sex workers’ rights advocate, wants to change that. She worries that legislation like SESTA and FOSTA, though ostensibly meant to help trafficking victims, is based on dangerous presumptions about the sex trade, which can actually harm both sex workers and people who are trafficked. “It’s the assumption that if we go after all prostitution, we will by definition get some trafficking in there anyway, since it’s all ‘exploitative,’” she explains. LeMoon has been trafficked and later engaged in sex work. “I know that from my experience being on Backpage,” she says, “you can’t just assume everybody’s experience in one industry.”

Sex work and trafficking are not the same thing, LeMoon and other advocates explain. At different points in their lives, some people choose sex work or are forced into sex work, or do sex work because they have few other choices. Like LeMoon, some people who have been trafficked may also use Backpage to advertise independently as sex workers. If Backpage closes down, they and other sex workers could be pushed into more dangerous situations.

SESTA supporters say the Communications Decency Act (CDA) shields websites like Backpage from most types of legal liability, making them a safe haven for trafficking. But Alexandra Levy, adjunct professor of law at Notre Dame Law School, where she teaches about human trafficking, points out that the CDA would not protect Backpage operators from federal criminal prosecution if its operators were themselves facilitating trafficking. “Section 230 as it is currently written would not prevent a federal prosecution of Backpage, if there was a case to be made,” she says. “And that’s a big if.”

If SESTA succeeds in unleashing a flood of suits against Backpage, they could be so costly as to put Backpage out of business. Some of the bill’s opponents say that would not only put sex workers out of work, but it would also make investigations harder for law enforcement and advocates who use Backpage to identify trafficking victims. What makes Backpage useful to sex workers also makes it a valuable investigatory tool: If law enforcement wanted to invent a tool that tracked people who were trafficked, and allowed them to communicate their location without alerting their traffickers, Levy has argued, it would look a lot like Backpage.

Megan Mattimoe, executive director and staff attorney at Advocating Opportunity, which assisted 150 victims of trafficking this past year, says she has seen Backpage provide information about trafficking victims captured in ads along with data on advertisers to aid in prosecutions. “In our cases,” she says, “Backpage not only complied with prosecutors’ requests, but they would also send someone to trial to testify that those business records were authentic.” Since Backpage closed its adult advertising section in January 2017, Mattimoe says, her organization has seen “victims advertised on sites housed outside the U.S.,” where federal prosecutors have neither subpoena power nor Backpage’s cooperation.

As investigations and prosecutions have made it more difficult for Backpage to operate, says LeMoon, who now works with SWOP Behind Bars, assisting sex workers who are incarcerated, life has become more difficult for both sex workers and survivors of trafficking. “It’s had a real disproportionate effect on low-income sex workers, sex workers of color, trans sex workers, sex workers who are most at the margins,” she says, “because we’re the ones who really rely on Backpage as a means of income.” Legislation like SESTA and FOSTA would put these workers at further risk.

Though it has sufficient votes to pass, SESTA has yet to come to a vote on the Senate floor. In November, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden placed a hold on the bill, warning, “I continue to be deeply troubled that this bill’s approach will make it harder to catch dangerous criminals,” adding that it could also “stifle innovation” on the internet. FOSTA’s fate is equally uncertain: Though tech companies like Apple and interest groups like the Concerned Women of America, a Christian anti-feminist organization, support it, many of the anti-trafficking lobbying groups who support SESTA (like World Without Exploitation) openly oppose FOSTA, which they say was crafted without their input and, unlike SESTA, lacks a provision for a civil right of action.

Advocates who work directly with survivors oppose both pieces of legislation, but for different reasons than the lobbying groups. “There’s nothing in there to help victims at all,” says Mattimoe. Survivors of trafficking may be able to bring a civil suit against a website such as Backpage, but few survivors have the resources to do so — another factor SESTA does not address.

Both SESTA and FOSTA also fail to address the immediate needs of survivors. Peñaranda of Sex Workers’ Project, who assists both sex workers and people who have been trafficked, says her clients already struggle to find work and fear being treated as criminals for past or current involvement in commercial sex. When websites such as Backpage are criminalized, Peñaranda says, “it’s forcing the hand of survivors” — to choose safety, or survival.


Thanks to Burke Butler.

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MA and NY DAs’ Bail “Reforms” Permit Business as Usual

Middlesex DA Marian Ryan
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MA and NY DAs’ Bail “Reforms” Permit Business as Usual


On January 11, Marian Ryan, the District Attorney of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, proudly announced that her office would stop requesting cash bail in “non-violent, low-level” cases. “Recognizing that even a short period of incarceration can cause tremendous upheaval in one’s life, including loss of employment and housing,” Ryan proclaimed, “this practice seeks to prevent incarceration solely due to a lack of financial resources.”

The next day, however, a man charged in Middlesex County with drug possession and larceny, both of which are presumably “non-violent” and “low-level” under DA Ryan’s definition — her office did not respond to a request to confirm — asked the Massachusetts Bail Fund to pay $500 because he could not afford his bail. But it was DA Ryan’s sweeping announcement that made the news that day, not the bail request that immediately undercut her lofty promises.

A similar scene unfolded that very same week in New York, where newly re-elected Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance announced that his office would no longer seek bail in certain misdemeanor cases. “A systemic reliance on bail for low-level offenses is out of step with a reformed, 21st-century justice system,” he told his constituents. This announcement spread across the news, with papers praising Vance and claiming his plan would “end cash bail for most low-level offenses.” In April, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez made a similar pledge.

But advocates in Massachusetts and New York fear that the courtroom reality will be very different from the reforms these DAs so forcefully promise.

“I’m skeptical that the proposed reforms will benefit all New Yorkers who are harmed by the bail system,” Brooklyn Community Bail Fund Director of Operations Terrence Bogans, also a former public defender, told The Appeal. “I’ve seen these District Attorneys ‘decriminalize’ offenses such as marijuana possession and jumping the turnstile, only to continue seeing low-income people of color prosecuted and have bail set for those very charges.”

Sure enough, this past week, the Fund — which, like several similar funds run by non-profits in cities around the country, pays for poor defendants to get out of jail — reported paying nine misdemeanor bails.


In counties that use money bail, a prosecutor asks the judge to set a bail amount that a person accused but not convicted of a crime must pay to get out of jail before their trial. If that person has the money, he or she gets out. If not, he or she sits in jail.

Cash bail proponents — including, incidentally, the bail bondsmen who make a killing off of poor defendants’ failure to pay — claim this system is necessary to ensure court appearances, but studies show this is misleading. In Washington, D.C., where there is no cash bail, 90 percent of people appear for their court dates. Meanwhile, indiscriminately caging all people who face criminal charges results in lost jobs, personal instability, and decreased public safety. This system of wealth-based detention is now under assault, with attacks coming from legislatorscelebrities, and grassroots powerhouses like Color of Change and Just Leadership.

But while Ryan and Vance are latching onto the rhetoric of criminal justice reformers, their bail “reforms” permit business as usual. Prosecutors in their counties can still ask judges to set bail amounts that poor people cannot pay, as just occurred in the Middlesex courthouse as Ryan announced her new policy. The DA’s office did not respond to a request for comment on that bail request.

Vance’s policy, too, is riddled with exceptions that contradict the no-bail rule and rubber-stamp DAs punishing the unconvicted. If police arrest someone for a misdemeanor who has other misdemeanor charges pending — even as minor as possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia — the DA can ask for cash bail. This exception has little to do with the likelihood of returning to court; Vance is simply allowing his prosecutors to ask for jail time to punish poor people with multiple arrests. In New York, where police disproportionately target people of color, this will mean poor black and brown people disproportionately caged pre-trial.

“Creating a loophole that permits the use of monetary bail simply because someone has multiple open misdemeanor cases ensures that the over-policed communities will be the least likely to benefit” from Vance’s policy, says Josh Norkin, coordinator of the Legal Aid Society’s Decarceration Project.

New York DAs can also ask for cash bail if someone charged with a misdemeanor was convicted in the past of certain felonies, like third-degree robbery, or a misdemeanor sex crime, or is on probation or parole, even if he or she has never missed a court date in the past. This too has little to do with his likelihood of returning to court, but it does ensure more people of color will remain locked up — because they have been over-policed and disproportionately saddled with criminal records. And while some of these named felonies, like third-degree robbery, may seem serious at a glance or like a threat to public safety, their labels can be misleading. Third-degree robbery is forcibly stealing property and can include crimes like taking a cell phone.

Perhaps the broadest loophole that appears in both of the new policies is the one that permits prosecutors to seek bail whenever they believe they could, after conviction, obtain more than a 30-day sentence in New York, or any jail sentence in Middlesex. But at such an early stage of the case, when the defendant seeks release pending trial, prosecutors have done little investigation into the case’s facts, the defendant’s prior record, or mitigating evidence. Any sentence within the maximum range is possible, and even the smallest case, like turnstile jumping, will allow for more than a 30-day sentence.

Ryan has otherwise provided few guidelines to attorneys, stating only that prosecutors should not request bail for “low-level, non-violent” offenses. These terms have no legal meaning; their definitions appear nowhere in the state statute. If a person is found with a knife in his or her pocket or grabs a cell phone from someone’s hand, is it a violent offense? Atara Rich-Shea, the Massachusetts Bail Fund’s director of operations and a former public defender, believes Ryan has kept the policy vague to allow prosecutors to continue along as before. “[DAs know] the definition of ‘nonviolent’ or ‘low level’ is a murky one,” she says, “that they can make up as they go along.”

Critically, neither Ryan nor Vance nor Gonzalez has publicly announced oversight mechanisms to ensure that line prosecutors follow the new policies. None of them has publicly promised to track prosecutors’ bail requests or provide data to the public. It will be up to those in the courtroom — defense attorneys or bail fund representatives — to alert the public when District Attorneys deviate from their plans.


Experiences described by advocates in Brooklyn show how easy it is for prosecutors to seek cash bail. Bogans from the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund reports that the fund regularly posts bail in misdemeanors where people are too poor to pay. Since April, Bogans told The Appeal, when Brooklyn DA Gonzalez announced his reforms, “our cases aren’t down, we haven’t changed our procedures, and we are still paying the same amount of bail every day.”

But the biggest flaw with the DAs’ policies is the premise that cash bail is necessary at all. Notwithstanding their sweeping pronouncements about the harm of wealth-based detention, Vance, Ryan, and Gonzalez are still comfortable incarcerating people who haven’t been convicted of crimes simply because they cannot afford bail, while releasing people who can. The DAs may also be susceptible to pressure from the bail industry; Gonzalez received $7,500 in campaign contributions from one bail bond company, though he later reportedly returned the donations.

These DAs are hiding behind popular reform rhetoric, but they are miles behind the real reform work being demanded by groups like the Decarceration Project in New York and Color of Change, who advocate for the elimination of the cash bail system.

Just last week, the New York City comptroller issued a report demanding an end to commercial bail, calling it a way of “further putting poor families into poverty.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, hardly known as a criminal justice reformer, is pushing a bill mandating the release of nearly all those accused of misdemeanors or non-violent felonies, allowing holds only for those who pose a flight or safety risk after they receive due process. Bogans of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund puts it succinctly: “What advocates are demanding is an end to this unjust practice.”

Perhaps these newly announced policies will lead to meaningful improvements in the bail system. But unless backed by real action and transparency from DAs like Vance, Ryan, and Gonzalez, these soaring promises of reform lure the public into a false sense that the criminal justice system is improving. Meanwhile, as always, people are caged simply because they are poor. Fortunately, there are on-the-ground advocates like Rich-Shea of the Massachusetts Bail Fund to hold prosecutors accountable. “DAs,” she says, “work for us.”

Thanks to Burke Butler.

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