Computers, cell phones, HDTVs, driving directions on your wrist and packages delivered the same day you ordered them by a drone. The stunning changes we have witnessed over the last 50 years can hardly be recounted in a few sentences, a few paragraphs, or even a few pages. But even as we look back — try looking forward. What will the next fifty years bring, in terms of technology, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, medical advances or even food production? What changes or innovations will we see in 2067 that today are simply beyond even our wildest imagination?
For Cyntoia Brown, brought into the sex trade as a teenager by an adult man and serving a 51 years-to-life sentence for killing a john at the age of 16 under circumstances suggesting self-defense, those changes – which many of us will get to witness and experience first-hand over the next five decades -- will be elusive and remote. As the world moves forward, at perhaps dizzying speed, time will largely stop for Cyntoia, as she grows up - and grows old - behind prison walls and cell doors.
Cyntoia’s story has captured the attention of the press and social media - including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian - as a particularly outrageous example of our justice system’s inimitable capacity to demonstrate, every day, what INjustice looks like. As a young girl sold on the streets, she was also a victim herself of sexual abuse and trauma. The fact that she caused the death of another individual is not in dispute. But what possible societal purpose is served by stripping her of five decades of liberty?
I have written in this space before about our insatiable desire for extreme sentences in America. Writing about this cruelty imposed on children — yet again — may fit Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome. But whose conduct really is insane in this story? Unquestionably, all of us must be held accountable for our actions. As parents, we teach our children at the earliest possible moment that there are consequences for certain behaviors. Civil society thrives on ordered liberty, where the freedoms we cherish could not survive without penalties for conduct that threatens or destroys those freedoms. The taking of another individual’s life is egregious; having a system of laws in place to address and sanction it is essential to any civilized society.
But our right to punish is also inextricably linked with our rationale for punishment. Punishment only makes sense if it is sensible. Arbitrary incarceration diminishes our own humanity, as it extinguishes the humanity of those we lock away to die in our prisons. At 16, Cyntoia Brown was a child still learning what it means to be a person — developmentally immature, prone to risk-taking with little regard for the consequences, impulsive in her behaviors and ill-reasoned in her judgments. These qualities of adolescence are not in dispute. They are grounded in research and embedded in our laws and constitutional jurisprudence. But her capacity for change and rehabilitation is also established by research, as is the likelihood that she will desist from any further criminal offending by her mid-twenties. Keeping children in prison beyond their demonstrated rehabilitation serves no public interest; it serves only some private interest in revenge and retribution.
Today, Cyntoia is 29 years old, no longer the teenager who was convicted and imprisoned thirteen years ago. Her case now heads to the federal courts, as she has lost her appeals in the state courts in Tennessee. Her sentence is no less than a long and unbearable death sentence, but it is hardly different from the child serving 20, 30 or 40 years in prison — years and decades well beyond any rational justification for their continued incarceration. Cyntoia is today’s poster child for the inhumanity of our justice system – indeed, her sentence under Tennessee law is one of the most extreme in the country -- but there are thousands serving alongside her who are themselves worthy of our disgust at that system.
It has become sadly cliched to repeat Nelson Mandela’s keen observation that the soul of a nation is illuminated by how it treats its children. We pay lip service to this ideal — even as our soul darkens. There is indeed insanity in this story — but it is in our unwillingness to treat children as children, not in our willingness to keep fighting for that principle, as often and as long as it takes.