Cyntoia Brown was released from a Tennessee prison Wednesday after spending nearly half her life in prison for killing a man she feared was on the verge of killing her first.
The case has been highlighted by prison reform activists and civil rights groups as an example of ways the criminal justice system fails girls and women, particularly low-income girls and women of color who have suffered abuse.
The 31-year-old Brown, sentenced to life in prison when she was 16, was granted clemency in January by the governor at the time, Bill Haslam (R).
In 2004, Johnny Allen, 43, picked up the then-teenager and took her back to his home for sex. Brown has said that she went home with Allen because her abusive and sexually violent boyfriend and pimp, Garion McGlothen, often referred to as “Kut Throat,” told her she had to earn money.
She said Allen showed her his collection of guns and violently grabbed her by the genitals. Fearing for her safety, she took a gun out of her purse and shot him.
Nashville prosecutors, who tried Brown as an adult, made the argument that her decision to shoot Allen was a cold-blooded murder as part of a robbery because she fled his home in his car with his money and guns.
Haslam said when he granted clemency, however, that a life sentence — one that would have required her to serve 51 years before having a chance for parole — was “too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”
Brown will be on parole for 10 years. She will also be required to perform at least 50 hours of community service, to get a job or educational enrollment, and to participate in regular counseling sessions. When news broke of the governor granting her clemency in January, the ACLU tweeted that although her release from prison is good news, 10 years probation is “excessive.”
We're thrilled that Cyntoia Brown is finally seeing justice.
Cyntoia never should have been sentenced so harshly to begin with, and we can't lose sight of the fact that she is still receiving an excessive 10 years probation.
The fight against harsh sentencing laws goes on. https://t.co/yMUA5mVUiD
— ACLU (@ACLU) January 7, 2019
Brown said in a statement following her release, “I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation.”
Her case received renewed media attention in 2017 following an Instagram post from the singer Rihanna, who shared her story and wrote #FREECYNTOIABROWN. That same year, Kim Kardashian also tweeted about her case, “The system has failed” and said she would call her attorneys to “see what can be done about this.”
Brown’s plight also drew attention to the way in which Tennessee, like a handful of other states, considers minors who commit serious crimes as “beyond the rehabilitative resources of Tennessee juvenile courts” and there being no minimum age for transfer of a minor for serious charges, according to the website The Appeal.
Several states have no minimum age for transfers, even though many young people, such as Brown, have traumatic upbringings and other circumstances to consider.
Incarcerated women of color often experience abuse and violence like that once faced by Brown. They include Eisha Love, a black transgender woman who was attacked at a gas station in 2012. As she and a friend drove away from the attackers, who shouted transphobic epithets, Love said she accidentally struck one of the men pursuing her. Love was booked for aggravated assault, which was later upgraded to a charge of attempted murder. She spent more than three years in a maximum security men’s jail before being released in 2015. Love said that during her imprisonment, she was attacked by a correctional officer.
Bresha Meadows shot and killed her abusive father, Jonathan Meadows, in 2016 when she was 14 years old. Meadows and her siblings have said her father was physically and verbally abusive, threatening them with a firearm and sometimes beating her mother in front of the kids. Meadows fatally shot her father using the same gun he allegedly used to terrorize her family. Although Meadows reported the violence to law enforcement, police told her there was nothing they could do. Prosecutors tried to charge her as an adult, but were unsuccessful. She spent a year in juvenile detention and was transferred to a residential treatment center for six months. In 2018, Meadows, then 16, was released from the mental health facility.