Brenda Gilmore proposes legislation to prevent young people from being tried in adult court

By LEE JOHNSON / Nashville Voice

A state senator who was among those that requested clemency for a sex trafficking victim serving a life sentence for murder has filed legislation she hopes will benefit juveniles that end up in court for trying to protect themselves.

Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat, filed the bill Jan. 8, a day after Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown. Last month, Gilmore and other lawmakers held a news conference asking Haslam to free Brown.

In 2006, Brown was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison for shooting and killing 43-year-old Johnny Allen, who paid Brown for sex when she was 16, according to court documents.

Brown said that she had been raped by a boyfriend who had forced her into prostitution, and that she killed Allen when she saw him reaching for a gun while they were in bed.

Gilmore’s proposal would amend a current statute relative to minors by adding, “any person using force intended or likely to cause death or serious bodily injury is presumed to have held a reasonable belief that the force is immediately necessary to avoid imminent death or serious bodily injury, if the person is a minor at the time of use of force.”

Gilmore and supporters of the legislation hope for its passage so that it will benefit incarcerated women with stories similar to Brown’s, particularly the number of young people tried in adult courts.

“We need to do a better job of taking care of our children,” Gilmore said.

The latest statistics show some progress in the reduction of young people that are tried in adult courts. According to a 2017 report, from 2007 to 2014, the number of young people tried in adult courts dropped 48 percent, from 175,000 to 90,900. But child welfare advocates say more progress is needed.

“Everyone we work with has watched this (Brown) case very carefully,” said Derri Smith, CEO and founder of End Slavery Tennessee, an anti-human trafficking group. “I also think it’s certainly going to be providing some sort of legal precedence, moving us away from something as archaic as giving a life sentence to a minor, certainly someone as traumatized as she (Brown) was.”

The push for Brown’s clemency increased dramatically at the end of 2018. On Dec. 6, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that she would have to serve 51 years in prison before she could be eligible for parole.

But there was still a chance the governor, who had the final say on Brown’s freedom, could decide to release her before his term ends this month.

Brown, 30, is set to be released on Aug. 7 and will be on parole for 10 years.

“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life,” Haslam said in his statement.

While in prison, Brown obtained a GED, associate’s degree and is set to obtain her bachelor’s degree in May. She also volunteers as a mentor to troubled youth in prison.

“She did everything we want prisoners to do,” Gilmore said. “She rehabilitated herself.”

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