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Cyntoia Brown Case Reveals Entrenched Problems with Tennessee Juvenile Justice

State law makes it easier to throw Brown away than consider traumas youth face and offer them hope of rehabilitation.

What’s the right thing to do when youth get into trouble? Daniel H. Birman, produced “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” an exploration of Cyntoia Brown’s life. The film includes guides for educators, facilitators and discussion of the larger issues her life represents.
Daniel H. Birman

Cyntoia Brown Case Reveals Entrenched Problems with Tennessee Juvenile Justice

State law makes it easier to throw Brown away than consider traumas youth face and offer them hope of rehabilitation.


In the whirlwind of news about men taking advantage of underage girls and male abuses of power in Hollywood, politics and beyond, the Cyntoia Brown case went viral 13 years after she was sentenced to life in prison, following this Instagram post by Rihanna:

Rihanna’s Instagram post about the Cyntoia Brown case.

In 2004, Brown was convicted of first-degree murder after fatally shooting Johnny Mitchell Allen, a 43-year-old Nashville real estate agent who solicited sex from her when she was 16. News stories have focused primarily on the plight of an unfortunate girl subjected to years of sex trafficking and other abuses, finally confronting and killing an abuser but nevertheless sentenced to life in prison for murder.

The redemptive and sexual abuse issues surrounding the case warrant attention, but Brown’s fate also reveals significant problems with Tennessee’s juvenile justice system. Specifically, the case of Cyntoia Brown highlights the need for Tennessee legislators to lift mandatory minimums for convicted juveniles and recognize youth have no place in the adult system, regardless of the offense.

People nationwide are mortified by Brown’s sentencing, including celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who lent her legal team to this cause. Understanding state law helps explain how we — and Cyntoia Brown — got here and what needs to happen next.

Tennessee’s 51-to-Life law

Although Brown was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole (at age 67) for killing a man who solicited sex from her as a minor, this is, indeed, the most lenient sentence possible under Tennessee law.

Under state law, only three sentencing options exist for those convicted of first-degree murder, no matter the age of the accused: death penalty, life in prison without possibility of parole and prison with the possibility for parole after serving 51 years.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that sentencing a minor to death or a life sentence without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. A separate Tennessee law also forbids imposing a death sentence on minors tried as adults.

Hence, the minimum sentence for a minor’s first-degree murder in Tennessee is a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 51 years.

Tennessee’s 51-to-Life law may not even be constitutional when applied to minor cases. In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole violates the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Youth advocates take the position that a mandatory 51-year sentence without parole is actually a life sentence because the average life expectancy in prison is about 50 years.

Unfortunately for Brown, the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals has disagreed and maintains the law is constitutional. Currently, about 183 individuals are serving a life sentence for crimes committed as minors.

The difference between youth and adults

The juvenile justice system was created based on the reality that youth do not have the mental capacity to fully appreciate wrongs. Since the Miller case, at least one state’s highest court, Iowa, has held even short mandatory sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, stating, “mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles are simply too punitive for what we know about juveniles.”

In recent years, the Supreme Court has heavily relied on neurological and social science research indicating the developing minds of youth make them less culpable than adults.

For example, the Miller court leaned on guidance from the American Psychology Association, which concludes “youth are particularly prone to engage in and are vulnerable to high-risk situations” because “the part of a youth’s brain responsible for judgment and impulse control does not communicate in balance as an adult’s would, and therefore does not give juveniles the same degree of control over their behavior.”

The problem with Tennessee

The Cyntoia Brown case reveals problems with how Tennessee sentences youth exposed to childhood trauma when facing a first-degree murder conviction.

2004: 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown within three weeks following her arrest for murder. She’s in a juvenile detention center awaiting a transfer hearing to determine if she should be tried as an adult.
Daniel H. Birman

In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court urges that individual mitigating factors must be taken into account when sentencing young people. Specifically, the court notes several factors to consider in youth sentencing, including the youth’s history of family violence, parental substance abuse, child abuse and mental health issues.

Unfortunately, the Miller Court’s 2012 mandate to consider childhood trauma as mitigating factors came too late to help 16-year-old Brown, originally sentenced in 2004. Brown’s jury did not get to hear information about how the girl was placed for adoption by her mother — only to be later kidnapped by her mother and sex trafficked. The jury also did not get to learn Brown showed signs of fetal alcohol syndrome because her mother drank heavily while she was pregnant.

Of her former pimp “Kutthroat,” Brown told an appeals court judge: “He would explain to me that some people were born whores, and that I was one, and I was a slut, and nobody’d want me but him, and the best thing I could do was just learn to be a good whore,” according to Newsweek.

Just like Brown, youth appearing in the juvenile and adult systems likely have exposure to a number of childhood traumas. According to a 2012 Sentencing Project survey of people sentenced to life in prison as juveniles, 79 percent witnessed violence in their homes regularly, and fewer than half attended school at the time of their offense. Of women handed life sentences as minors, 80 percent reported histories of physical abuse, and 77 percent reported histories of sexual abuse.

Yet, children exposed to childhood trauma fare no better today in Tennessee adult courts under the still-existing 51-to-Life law. The life sentence is mandatory in Tennessee first-degree murder cases, regardless of the accused minor’s age and traumatic experiences.

The enormous cost of housing youth offenders for life is also troubling under the state’s mandatory 51-to-Life law. According to an American Civil Liberties Union study, a 50-year sentence for a 16-year old costs about $2.25 million in public money to imprison one individual, based on national averages.

In Tennessee, where it costs roughly $27,000 to house a prisoner annually, individuals serving life sentences for convictions as minors cost taxpayers more than $4.9 million each year.

Tennessee’s 51-to-Life law also does not take into account the power of rehabilitation, and the fact minors who have made serious life-altering mistakes can change.

Despite bipartisan efforts and heavy support from youth justices advocates, legislative attempts that would let youth see parole possibility sooner have repeatedly failed. A measure supported by State Reps. Mike Stewart (D-District 52), Mark White (R-District 83) and Brenda Gilmore (D-District 54) that would make individuals convicted to life sentences as minors eligible for parole after serving 25 years failed in the 2016 legislative session.

In another legislative attempt in early 2017, a similar bill pushed by State Rep. Gerald McCormick (R-District 26) and State Sen. Doug Overby (R-District 2) that would make lifers convicted as teens eligible for parole after 20 years, also failed.

Minors on the move to adult courts

Cyntoia Brown’s case also highlights problems with Tennessee’s stance on transferring minors to adult criminal courts.

Minors who commit serious crimes such as murder are deemed beyond the rehabilitative resources of Tennessee juvenile courts. Thus, youth accused of crimes such as first-degree murder are transferred to the adult system, regardless of the youth’s traumatic upbringing or circumstances.

There is no minimum age for transfer of a minor in Tennessee for serious charges such as murder, rape or kidnapping. Youth as young as 14 are regularly transferred to adult courts under Tennessee law despite research showing adolescent brains are not as fully developed as adults.

Tennessee is not alone in this regard. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and West Virginia also have no minimum age for adult prosecution of children.

2005: Cyntoia Brown writes a note to her attorneys about her defense.
Daniel H. Birman

Under Tennessee transfer law, factors considered by juvenile courts in deciding whether to transfer youth to adult court do not include a young person’s exposure to childhood trauma.

Youth justice advocates argue that youth who experience trauma, like Brown, need rehabilitative services and protections supposedly afforded by juvenile courts the most.

Race and poverty also play a big part in youth outcomes. The transfer of juveniles to adult court is disparately impacted by race and poverty, with youth of color transferred at the highest rates. Young people of color are also more likely to face a life sentence because of the higher frequency of transfers to adult court.

Going beyond justice for Brown, now 29, seems necessary. Youth advocates are hopeful the Tennessee General Assembly will use the resurface of the Brown case to right some of the many quite obvious wrongs of the Tennessee juvenile system.

Demetria Frank is an assistant professor of law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. She teaches courses in evidence, federal courts and mass incarceration. The views expressed in this Commentary are Professor Frank’s and do not necessarily reflect those of In Justice Today.

Starving The Beast: Chicago’s Fight Against Police Expansion is Everyone’s Fight

Joshua Lott/Getty

Starving The Beast: Chicago’s Fight Against Police Expansion is Everyone’s Fight


On November 7th, Chicago’s City Council voted for the city to buy a 30-acre plot of land where a new $95 million dollar police and fire academy will be built. However, intense opposition against the academy — including an impassioned speech by Chicago’s own Chance The Rapper — has come to symbolize a broader battle by youth activists to curtail police power.

Brianna Hampton-Murff, a 17-year old senior at Chicago’s Intrinsic High School, says that the proposed academy, which includes a shooting range and even a swimming pool, “seemed to be a secret.” Her group, Assata’s Daughters, which provides resources and political and educational programming for young Black girls in Chicago, found out about the project relatively late in the process. Still, they were able to launch an organizing effort earlier this year to protest the academy in part through social media using the #NoCopAcademy hashtag.

The campaign does not simply oppose the creation of another police academy (Chicago already has one), it also calls for the funding of services and programs that Chicago youth say they actually need. This type of disinvest-reinvest approach isn’t new. Youth and grassroots organizers across the country have launched like-minded efforts. Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition spearheaded the “LA for Youth” — or the 1% campaign — in 2012 to demand that city officials redirect $100 million (about 1% of the law enforcement budget) to youth programs. Similarly, in 2015, New York City activists (myself included) fought the increase of over 1,000 extra officers to the NYPD under the #NoNewNYPD hashtag and called for funding community needs instead — the Safety Beyond Policing campaign.

Hampton-Murff lives on the west side of Chicago, close to where the academy would stand. She notes that the fight over the academy is the result of lingering frustration from the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a young black man who was killed by Chicago police in 2014. Over a year after the shooting, video of McDonald being shot 16 times sparked protests, a Justice Department investigation and led to the eventual ouster of the police superintendent. After that, Hampton-Murff says, “we decided enough was enough.”

The man behind the academy plan is Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, a Democrat, came under scrutiny after it became known that he’d seen the McDonald video months before it was released and tried to keep it from the public. He has defended the new academy by claiming it will be an “investment” in Chicago’s economy. #NoCopAcademy activists have countered by arguing that money for the academy, which is assumed to be partly funded through the sale of city land to developers, should instead be spent on public education.

In 2013, Emanuel oversaw the largest round of school closures in American history. Benji Hart, an activist with the Chicago BTGNC Collective, a network of Black trans and gender nonconforming people, notes that community members “understand that it is unjust to spend millions on the irrefutably-racist Chicago Police Department while schools and clinics are constantly closing.” He says that support for the campaign, which has included train takeovers, “has been surprisingly sweeping.”

While anti-police brutality organizing often centers around protests in response to specific tragedies or efforts to criminally charge brutal cops, a challenge to public spending presents a straightforward question about priorities. Bloated police department budgets — like Boston, where cops are tops in public salaries, or Baltimore, where overtime spending has doubled, and of course New York, where the police budget (over $5 billion annually) tops the GDP of some countries — already point to the answer: politicians love to spend money on police. In fact, even when police departments are demonstrably abusive and discriminatory, like the Chicago Police Department, “reforms” can mean even more spending for training, or “community policing.”

For Hart and others, #NoCopAcademy builds power to challenge policing’s budget superiority. “So much of what we imagine to be politically possible,” he says, “is predetermined by what we believe to be attainable through the electoral system.” The campaign, he explains, “flips this paradigm on it its head” and reaches beyond Chicago politics by highlighting “long-term visions for a just world” by placing “the power for that envisioning back in communities’ hands.”

That, of course, is no easy task. Chicago, unlike other urban cities where violence has plunged, saw record shootings and murders in 2016 (though those numbers have declined this year). The knee-jerk reaction to rising crime is often to pump more money into cops. Indeed, President Trump often points to Chicago as a symbol of big cities overrun with violence in need of an aggressive law enforcement response.

Hart points out that that Trump, who he says is “devoted to cutting social services and upping funding for law enforcement,” is only a sliver of the problem. After all, it’s not Trump that Chicago activists are fighting, but an Obama-endorsed Democrat who has been described as part of the local “resistance” to Trumpism. In fact, Mayor Emanuel, even after the McDonald controversy and a critical DOJ report, has mirrored Trump on criminal justice, swelling the Chicago police ranks. The city, already deploying the most cops per capita in the country, last year committed to adding 1,000 more cops.

Debbie Southorn, a member of the War Resisters League, a #NoCopAcademy group, connects police expansion to a militaristic mindset at the national level: “It’s no coincidence that police spending in departments across the country continue to rise, alongside the largest boost to military spending in years that the Senate approved earlier this year.” Chicago police certainly deploy resources like an occupying army, disappearing thousands at Homan Square, a controversial CPD “black site”, as well as attempting to predict criminality with an orwellian “heat list” of likely offenders as well as what is by early accounts a flawed and racially-biased gang database.

Juanita Tennyson, a 19-year old Assata’s Daughters leader, says several of her friends have been killed by police and that she doesn’t want more cops in Chicago. “More resources need to be put in the community,” she says. “More money needs to be spent on the reconstruction [of] communities.” Mental health clinics and hospitals with trauma centers are desperately needed, organizers say. In fact, organizers say, addressing many of Chicago’s widespread, unmet social needs would help alleviate crime. “We want somewhere for children to go, to be productive with their time,” Hampton-Murff says.

Whether or not Emanuel’s police academy is eventually built, Chi-town activists have made it clear that having more “‘trust”’ in an ever-growing police force — a common talking point of elected officials and criminal justice think tanks — isn’t what Chicago needs. “‘Trust”’ between the public and police didn’t unearth the tragic McDonald video. “‘Trust”’ didn’t help recently exonerate 15 men framed by Chicago cops. Community members in Chicago, particularly young people, want money dedicated to the police department to be rerouted into programs that will uplift the community that its officers target.

Tennyson says residents are “tired of the mistreatment of their communities by a force being paid to ‘protect’ them.”


Josmar Trujillo is writer and activist based in East Harlem. He organizes with the Coalition to End Broken Windows, a coalition of grassroots groups based in New York. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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After Deadly Vice Sting, Advocates Say End to Prostitution Arrests Is Long Overdue

40th Road in Flushing, Queens, where a woman leapt to her death while fleeing NYPD Vice officers last Saturday.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

After Deadly Vice Sting, Advocates Say End to Prostitution Arrests Is Long Overdue


A 38-year-old woman, Yang Song of Queens, New York, died at New York Presbyterian Hospital on Sunday, one day after falling three stories from an apartment window in nearby Flushing. Little has been reported about Song beyond the New York Police Department’s assertion that she was a sex worker, and fell while officers from the Queens North Vice Enforcement Division attempted to arrest her.

The Saturday incident took place at approximately 7:30PM at 135–32 40th Road, inside an apartment above a ground-floor Cantonese restaurant and second floor massage parlor, King Spa. NYPD told The Appeal that Song was inside the apartment with an undercover officer who’d solicited a sex act as part of a broader vice investigation into the location. She pushed him out of the apartment, they said. The officer had already called for backup when police stationed outside on the sidewalk saw Song fall, sustaining head and body trauma. No arrests were made that night. The NYPD’s Force Investigation Division, assigned to deaths in custody, is currently investigating.

Song’s death comes seven months after the NYPD pledged to arrest fewer people on prostitution charges — part of a larger initiative to build trust, particularly in immigrant communities, even as President Trump’s immigration policy stokes fear of deportation. Song had been previously arrested in Queens on September 27, 2017. Her case was referred to the Queens human trafficking court, which handles prostitution-related cases. Her next court date was scheduled for December 1.

Scott Heins

“What went through our heads when we heard about what happened,” Leigh Latimer, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society who represents clients charged with prostitution, told The Appeal, “is that likely this individual had experienced some police contact before and was very fearful of contact with the NYPD.”

“The Asian community [in Flushing] is tight,” she added. “Feeling like the police are going to do whatever they think they have to [to] make an arrest, of course this is going to scare people.”

Susan Liu, associate director of women’s services at Garden of Hope, a Flushing-based nonprofit that provides shelter, translation services and immigration assistance to massage parlor workers, canvassed the street where Song fell on Monday with her colleagues. Liu says that many of her clients are Chinese immigrants in their 30s and 40s, with a language barrier and narrow job prospects. Some engage in sex work — under duress, Liu believes. Others are masseuses. Many fled domestic abuse or financial difficulties in their home country.

“There are people who we talked to on the street and they are saying they would rather jump than be arrested,” Liu told The Appeal. “It’s very sad to hear that. And among these women who work at massage parlors there are many who are trafficking victims… and I personally just don’t feel that it’s fair to criminalize victims.”

Over the past decade, the NYPD has made thousands of prostitution arrests. In 2014, there were more than 1,700. Raids on massage parlors also spiked in the years leading up to the NYPD’s February pledge to curb them.

“We saw a huge increase in arrests and operations going on in massage parlors in Queens between 2015 and the beginning of 2017,” Latimer said, adding that there have been many arrests for prostitution and unlicensed massage in the area around where Song fell.

Both New York 1 and the New York Post report that the Saturday arrest attempt was part of a massage parlor investigation, though police did not confirm this to The Appeal. A man who answered the phone at King Spa Wednesday declined to comment on the incident but said the business is limited to the second floor.

According to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society, arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700 percent between 2012 and 2016.

“And among these women who work at massage parlors there are many who are trafficking victims… and I personally just don’t feel that it’s fair to criminalize victims.”

In recent months, according to Latimer, prostitution-related arrests have declined. Legal Aid represents the majority of defendants in these cases in the city, and Latimer reports that they represented 25 individuals arrested on prostitution-related charges in February 2017. That’s a 50 percent drop from February 2016.

In March and April 2017, arrests declined again into the single digits. But in May, the arrests were back up, and again in June (the most recent data), when Legal Aid reported 19 prostitution-related arrests in Queens.

“Raids are a traumatic event… just mentally harmful,” Jenna Torres, a community organizer with the Red Umbrella Project, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of sex workers, told The Appeal. Unlike Liu, Torre argues that not all sex workers are trafficking victims. “Police are rough, and really treat supposed victims as criminals.”

Compounding that trauma is the fear of what might follow an arrest. The Queens District Attorney’s Office established its human trafficking intervention court back in 2010, where some prostitution-related cases are diverted, like Song’s was, and defendants are mandated to social services. The Urban Institute recently surveyed roughly 1,400 defendants, many of whom reported dissatisfaction with diversion. What the service providers offered, including counseling and immigration assistance, did not match with what most reported they need: employment, housing, education and healthcare.

President Trump’s immigration enforcement mandate has also raised the stakes related to such arrests. Since June, plainclothes Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have used the Queens trafficking court to identify individuals for immigration detention. One attempted detention made headlines, but four more defendants in the same Queens court were detained by ICE, according to Legal Aid.

Scott Heins

While the NYPD’s sanctuary city policy limits cooperation with ICE outside courtrooms, these federal agents can access the NYPD’s fingerprint database, which is fed by broken windows policing and prostitution arrests alike. For this reason, Legal Aid argues that decriminalizing the sex trade would make New York City safer for their clients.

Sanctuary for Families, an organization that provides court-mandated services, is strongly opposed to decriminalization. They have been major supporters of the NYPD’s new trust-building initiative, arguing that the NYPD can and should focus its resources on arresting pimps, sex workers’ customers, and traffickers while protecting women engaging in sex work.

Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, expressed dismay about Song’s death in a statement Monday, while doubling down on her group’s position that men who buy sex should be targeted by law enforcement.

“The tragic death of the woman who jumped from a third-floor window rather than face arrest on prostitution charges raises an important question,” she stated. “Why is the NYPD still targeting women in prostitution instead of the men who buy them?”

The Queens District Attorney and the Mayor’s Office refused to comment on Song’s death to In Justice Today, deferring to the NYPD. The NYPD also did not comment.

Meanwhile, “the ladies are still fearful of law enforcement, yes,” Liu, of Garden of Hope, said Tuesday. “I don’t know how to make them feel differently.”

“This tragedy should make everyone take seriously the impact of being criminalized and policed, whether because of engagement in sex work or immigration status”

Recently, Liu has been trying to introduce herself to massage parlor workers without the intermediary of the NYPD. This involves a lot of pavement pounding with volunteers. Building trust is slow going.

It’s “like a catch 22,” Liu said. “Without the [diversion] court many, many ladies would not find people to help them. But before they get help, they have to go through law enforcement — the arrest — and I just feel like that’s a big price to pay.”

“This tragedy should make everyone take seriously the impact of being criminalized and policed, whether because of engagement in sex work or immigration status,” added Kate D’Adamo, sex worker rights’ advocate and former policy advocate at Sex Workers’ Project in New York. “As long as criminalization and policing of the sex industry continues, the fear, isolation and vulnerability that policing fosters will thrive.”

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