The Effect of Cyntoia Brown’s Clemency on the Juvenile Justice SystemThe Tennessean reported Governor Bill Haslam, in one of his final acts as Governor, granted clemency to 30-year-old Cyntoia Brown. Ms. Brown was sentenced to life in jail for killing a Nashville real estate agent. She was sentenced when she was 16 years old. The agent, whom she didn’t know, picked her up “at an east Nashville Sonic then took her to his home, where she shot him in the back of the head.” The government said it was a “cold-blooded murder.” Her defense lawyers and supporters say “she was a victim of sex trafficking who feared for her life” while she was with the real estate agent.

Ms. Brown was sentenced to life, which means at least 51 years in prison, as a result of her murder conviction. The clemency order means she’ll be released in August 2019.

Tennessee is tough on youthful offenders

Currently, Tennessee is holding 119 juveniles (convicted after 1995) for crimes that are subject to the mandatory 51-year prison sentence. Tennessee’s mandatory prison law is one of the harshest in the country; 12 males and one female have life sentences with no chance of parole, even though the US Supreme Court declared such life sentences unconstitutional for juveniles in most cases. All thirteen were convicted before they reached the age of 18.

Advocates for juvenile justice believe the Governor’s clemency decision may spur legislation to address these long-term mandatory juvenile sentences. They, along with some legislators, say Haslam’s order granting Brown clemency could serve as a tipping point for sentencing reform in Tennessee. Currently, anyone convicted of first-degree murder can be sentenced to:

  • Death
  • Life in prison with no chance for parole
  • Life with a chance of parole after 51 years

One advocate for change, state senator Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) is advocating the following changes:

  • Juvenile offenders would have a chance of parole after 20 years, if they don’t already have a life without parole sentence (effective July 2019)
  • All future life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders will be ended
  • Age will be a factor in parole decisions

How other states handle long-term juvenile sentences

Per The Tennessean, “Since 2014, at least 24 states have either eliminated life without parole for juvenile offenders or enacted new measures requiring an automatic review of life sentences imposed on teens after they have served a certain number of years — ranging from 15 to 40 years after sentencing.” In Pennsylvania, for example, 150 of the 535 people who received life sentences when they were juveniles were released and 250 were re-sentenced.

Even though the US Supreme Court held that the life sentences, except in rare cases, weren’t permissible for juveniles, Tennessee has not taken any action on the 13 juveniles with life sentences nor the many more with “life with parole” 51-year sentences (almost life for many).

Sheila Calloway, a Davidson County Juvenile Court Judge, explained “that lengthy sentences for juveniles convicted of even the most serious crimes ignores the reality and science about their ability to change from troubled children, often the subject of traumatic childhood experiences, to responsible adults.”

Current legal challenges to the 51-year and life sentences

There are challenges being made to the long-term sentencing laws, though many of those convicted do not have access to a lawyer. The attorneys for the 30-year-old Brown did appeal her sentence, arguing that a 51-year sentence is a de facto life sentence. While her case is now likely moot because of the clemency, other convicted juveniles could raise that argument in court.

Advocates for change are encouraging the Governor to create a commission to review any 51-year old mandatory sentence involving juveniles. Legislation could also address the problem.

At Delius & McKenzie, PLLC, we’ve been fighting for the accused for decades. We represent adults and juveniles in trial and on appeal. To schedule an appointment with experienced Sevierville juvenile justice lawyer, please call us at (865) 428-8780 or complete our contact form. We represent clients in and around in Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge.