Since leaving the Tennessee Prison for Women after 15 years, Cyntoia Brown-Long has had to adjust to things like buying personal items and riding in cars. “Ugh, why are tissues so expensive?” she said in a phone interview. Her husband calls her a back-seat driver, but after 15 years of rarely being in cars, she gets nervous on every ride.
Brown-Long began her incarceration as a 16-year-old girl and ended it in August as a 31-year-old married woman who professes faith in Jesus Christ and advocates for criminal justice reform. She was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison. The teenager had run away from the custody of the state Department of Children’s Services and was living in Nashville with a man who forced her into prostitution. She shot and killed 43-year-old Johnny Allen, whom she said had hired her for sex. Prosecutors said Brown-Long intended to rob Allen, but she said she feared for her life when she shot him to death with a gun her boyfriend-pimp gave her.
Earlier this year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, granted Brown-Long clemency after a highly publicized campaign by activists and celebrities to win her freedom. “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,” Haslam said when he announced his decision.
When Brown-Long was first convicted, the district attorney initially considered trying her as a juvenile before ultimately sending her case through the adult system. But more and more, states are erring on the side of trying youth in the juvenile system. In recent years, almost all states have passed raise-the-age laws, setting the age of criminal responsibility at 18. Last month, a law took effect in New York that creates a new category— “adolescent offender”—for 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felony-level crimes and allows them to be tried in the juvenile court system. On Thursday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, also signed a raise-the-age law. Missouri passed its own law in 2018, and it is set to take effect in 2021.
Only Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin still treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. Brown-Long advocates for separate sentencing schemes and assistance for juvenile offenders. “Juveniles and adults are not the same,” she told me, adding that Christians, in particular, should care. “Anybody who loves Jesus, No. 1, should be invested in making sure that our justice system is one where we treat people compassionately.”
Brown-Long grew up in the church but said she thought of the Bible as “a how-to manual.” Before her trial, she thought praying “in Jesus’ name” would keep courts from trying her as an adult and sentencing her to life in prison. When it didn’t, she angrily decided she didn’t believe in God.
In January 2017, Jamie Long, now Brown-Long’s husband, began corresponding with her in prison, encouraging her to trust God. After her last appeal was denied, she felt hopeless: “For the first time, it was like, maybe I actually will spend my life in prison.” But she began to look to God. “At that time, I didn’t have nothing else to believe in,” she said. “Man had already let me down time and time again.”
Brown-Long started reading the gospels and said she “really understood what it meant that His will is not our will. Once I started focusing on Him instead of trying to fix problems in my own way, He started doing the supernatural.”
After she left prison, Brown-Long went to a celebratory dinner with her family. Then she began a quiet transition to her new life at her home outside Nashville, refusing interviews until the Oct. 15 publication of her memoir, Free Cyntoia. Now her days are full of interviews and speeches. Brown-Long said when at home she tries to spend time meditating on God. She said social media and cell phones make focusing harder than “when it was just me and Him alone in a cell.”