The Juvenile Justice System Failed Cyntoia Brown

March 19, 2019

In 2006, Cyntoia Brown became a symbol of how our juvenile justice system is failing. At just sixteen, Brown was tried as an adult and convicted of murder and robbery by the Tennessee Supreme Court, ending in a life sentence— without the possibility of parole. A forty-three-year-old by the name of Johnny Allen who solicited Brown outside of a Sonic restaurant paid $150 to have sex with her. Brown had never met Allen prior to returning to his house with him, but she had been instructed by her abusive boyfriend who is now dead, Garion L. Mcglothen (who went by the alias of Cut Throat), to bring him money. Leading up to the encounter, Allen described guns he had at his house, which added to Brown’s unease. Upon entering Allen’s bedroom, he went to reach for something that Brown believed was a gun. That is when Brown pulled out her own gun, shot and killed Allen, stole some of his money and belongings, drove to a Walmart parking lot, and later called 911 on herself to confess her crimes.

Brown had a new sentence hearing this past year, and cited Miller v. Alabama, which claims that juvenile life sentence without the possibility of parole goes against the US constitution. At her hearing members of her family came to speak on her behalf, including her biological mother. A large number Allen’s family and friends came to speak as well, claiming that his story had been lost in the fight for Cyntoia. After reviewing testimony from Brown and her family, police, and Allen’s family a panel of six voted on what was next in regards to her future and release. Two voted for her to be granted full clemency, two granted for her sentence to be reduced with the possibility of parole– saying that a life sentence is too harsh for a minor whose brain is still developing impulse control, and two panel members voted for her to remain with a life sentence. The Tennessee Supreme Court explained that a life sentence is thought to be about sixty years, which can be reduced by nine years with good behavior and participation in educational training programs. Brown has been fighting to better her life, even while she is in prison; she has earned an Associate’s Degree and is almost done with her Bachelors. She has taken the steps to get an early release, but even after her efforts, and the panel voting, she was still left to serve fifty-one years in prison before the eligibility of her being released. 

Flash forward to 2019, after serving fifteen years Brown was granted clemency by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. Social justice groups kicked into action nearing the end of 2018 to push for Browns release. As her case began to trend on social media, she gained a following of supporters from a variety of groups: the #metoo movement, black lives matter, and #freecyntoiabrown. Celebrities such as Rhianna and Kim Kardashian West also used their platform to advocate for her clemency. Her release is set for August of this year, but activists are fighting to get her released sooner.

When our justice system is reviewing these cases, they have to put themselves into these “criminals” scenarios. Brown was a runaway. She was a minor on the run with her twenty-four-year-old boyfriend, who went by the name of Cut Throat. Take a moment to imagine that. You have been manipulated for the majority of your life. You were put up for adoption at a young age which placed deep rooted fear of not being worthy into your brain. You are a teenage runaway. Someone grown, a twenty-year-old man shows you love like you had never been given before, and he says all of the right words. With the fear of losing them, you do what they say. Until, one day they ask you to solicit yourself for money. Without the knowledge of what will come, you say no. That man almost took your life, but the torture and rape took your soul. Even though he treats you poorly, the fear of being alone and the fear of what he will do if you try to leave overwhelms you –you are now a part of prostitution.

There needs to be protection for these women who are put into dangerous situation especially for children and minors who are still developing the ability of impulse control. When these minors are being put into these adult situations they are unable to think through a rational plan of action. Because their prefrontal cortex — an important part in impulse control– is still developing, optimal decision making on the spot is more difficult. This relates back to Cyntoia Brown in the way that she was only sixteen in this scary situation and she killed someone out of fear. She ran away from the scene out of fear, and many adults probably would have done the same thing. Yes, she left the scene, but she was also a sixteen-year-old who just shot and killed someone because she was forced into sex trafficking who feared for her life. Just because she was in this ‘adult’ situation does not mean she should have been charged like an adult. The justice system needs to remember that no matter what these minors did, they are still minors. In the end, she reported herself. She shown remorse and that should have been case enough that her decision to kill that man was not a malicious act, it was out of fear and impulse.

Prosecutors also allow racial bias to play a role in the conviction of minors. African Americans are five times more likely to be detained than white people. Knowing this, we have to question if Cyntoia Brown, as well as other abuse and sexual assault victims, would have been given as harsh a sentence as they were, if they were white.

We have to stop victim blaming. We are teaching these young children that if they stand up for themselves and if they defend themselves they will be punished. Then we wonder why it takes so long for these women to come forward with cases. In our society, we do not address the issue of sex trafficking, we do not discuss the effect rape has on its victims, we do not address recovery. Cyntoia Brown was a victim of sex trafficking. Her recovery was inside a prison. Her ‘justice’ was a life sentence. Her punishment was greater than many rapists. As her release date grows near, after spending half of her life so far behind bars, she has the goal to help women and girls who have been blamed for defending themselves. 

“I am also grateful to those at the Tennessee Department of Corrections who will work with me over the next several months to help me in the transition from prison to the free world. […] I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.” – Cyntoia Brown


Some information obtained from:

The Tennessean ,, The Washington Post,,


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