Gov. Haslam needs to do the right thing and grant Cyntoia Brown clemency

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) is no friend of justice for black and brown women. He has pushed laws and practices that have destroyed women’s lives. Cyntoia Brown’s case has presented him with an opportunity to begin redressing some of the harm he’s caused. He must start by freeing Cyntoia. But he can’t stop with her case — he can’t stop until he has reviewed the cases of every woman imprisoned in his state and freed each woman who, like Cyntoia, is unjustly imprisoned.

When Cyntoia was 16-years-old, a jury convicted her in adult criminal court of first degree murder, felony murder and aggravated robbery. She was young black woman involved in the sex trade and she killed a john who threatened her with guns and sexual violence. She fought back and as a result, she’s grown up behind bars. While imprisoned, Cyntoia has used her time to earn a college degree and to share her story with other young people. She is a bright light. There is no legitimate state purpose served by keeping her behind bars.

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Cyntoia's attorneys are fighting to free her through litigation at both the state and federal courts. In her federal case, her attorneys rely on Miller v. Alabama, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision to argue that her sentence violates the U.S. Constitution because it’s tantamount to an automatic life sentence. 

The Miller decision prohibits the automatic imposition of a life sentence on teenagers and requires consideration of a person’s youth and any mitigating circumstances prior to sentencing. But, the federal appellate court could not reach a decision about the merits of Cyntoia’s cases because Tennessee’s sentencing laws are a morass. So the federal appellate court asked the State Supreme Court for help clarifying how much time Cyntoia must serve until she’s eligible for release. The answer came in a decision handed down earlier this week — Cyntoia will have to serve a total of 51 years before she can become eligible for release — she would return to the free world at 67 years old.

This is clearly a de facto life sentence. Under the laws of the land, Cyntoia should be entitled to re-sentencing and a full consideration of her youth at the time of her crime, her life circumstances and the factual circumstances of her alleged offense. Any fair and meaningful consideration of these factors would result in Cyntoia’s immediate release. But in Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee, like throughout the rest of the country, the laws of the land too frequently fail to create justice for black women.

Tennessee’s recent struggles with justice, race and gender provides important context for Cyntoia’s struggle. In 2014 Gov. Haslam proudly signed into law the first law in the country that made it a crime for women to use drugs while pregnant — deeming drug use by pregnant women “fetal assault.” That law has since expired, but in 2018 Haslam allowed the “Mass Deportation Bill”to become law. This law requires local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration officials and allows local police to detain people for suspected immigration violations. Opponents of the law argued that immigrant communities will be even less likely to seek help from police — even in the aftermath of sexual violence or intimate partner violence. Gov. Haslam ignored the arguments, allowed the bill to become law and left many immigrant women who survive violence with nowhere to turn.

Haslam presides over a prison system that incarcerates more women per capita than almost every state. While black people are only 17 percent of the overall population there, 44 percent of the people behind bars in Tennessee are black. One third of people imprisoned in Tennessee live in prisons ran by notorious private prison company Core Civic/Corrections Corporation of America. And the private prison industry is one of Haslam’s top campaign contributors.

Despite his troubling record, Cyntoia’s best chance for freedom lies with Gov. Haslam. Haslam has stated that he’s going to review every aspect of Cyntoia’s clemency application and that he wants to treat her case fairly, along with other less publicized cases. He should do so. Because the true horror of Cyntoia’s ordeal is not that a promising young woman is serving time for defending herself against her abuser.

The true horror is that there are thousands of women just like her in Tennessee and elsewhere. Gov. Haslam must free Cyntoia. Once she’s free, Haslam should establish the Cyntoia Brown Commission that will review the convictions and the sentences of all women in Tennessee prisons and grant clemency to each woman who has been battered, struggled with addiction and/or punished more harshly than her male counterparts. 

Gov. Haslam has never prioritized justice for black and brown women. In fact, he’s governed to maximize the cruel injustices imposed on black and brown women. Cyntoia Brown’s case charts a path for him to begin righting all of his wrongs.

Sheila Bedi is a clinical professor of law at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and an Attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. Her work focuses on ending mass imprisonment and police violence.