The Cyntoia Brown case is one involving complex tragic layers of racial inequality, childhood trauma, and juvenile sentencing.
At 16-years-old, Brown killed a man who had solicited her for sex. She was tried as an adult and given a life sentence. But in the decade since her trial and sentencing, there has been increasing awareness of issues around the complexities of child sex trafficking, effects of trauma, and unjust incarceration of youth — particularly black youth. With all of this knowledge, the courts in Tennessee say that she would have been tried differently today, taking into consideration her role as a child sex slave, and now view her as a victim. Because of these reasons, and many others, Brown has been granted clemency after 15 years in prison.
One of her lawyers, J. Houston Gordon, wants this case to draw national attention to the “draconian laws that put children in prison.” I believe that this is necessary. Justice for Cyntoia matters not only for her future but serves to reshape public consciousness about how our treatment of children and minors lead to a more just world.
In Christian tradition, the doctrine of original sin has been applied to treatment of young children as an assumption of evil. Any misbehavior is interpreted as a natural outpouring of the darkness of their hearts. Conservative Christian parenting literature instructs parents to punish misbehavior and often to literally beat children into submission. This simplistic model views the misbehavior at the tip of the iceberg and ignores the vast substance of what may be driving it.
In Brown’s case, her crime is murder, but the factors leading to her crime should impact the way prosecution tries and sentences. It has been reported that she suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome at birth, was given up for adoption, placed in foster care, and then became a sex trafficking victim. Children and youth are full human beings capable of making moral choices and should be held responsible for them, but to punish without a thorough investigation of their vulnerabilities as minors is injustice.
This applies too, to the children and minors in our care — to paint children either as totally depraved creatures prone to evil or as completely innocent and pure diminishes their personhood. Instead, we need to account for the biological, sociological, emotional, and spiritual influences and how a child’s inherent agency interacts with these spheres resulting in their choices and how that impacts their world. In confronting misbehavior, we can ask questions like, is this misbehavior hurting others, hurting themselves, or is it merely veering from the status quo of their world? Are they mirroring behavior of adults around them? Was there trauma to the child and is this an appropriate response? Is the child tired, hungry, under the influence of substances? None of the answers necessarily justifies the misbehavior but underlying our ethics and justice system must be an accounting for what is really going on.
In my book, Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy & Kindness, I argue that as people of faith who care about justice, one of the most important work we can do is to advocate for justice for children. In every intersection of oppression, children exist. Brown was caught in a web of injustice as a black young woman born into economic oppression, endured trauma of separation from family, and was a victim of sex trafficking. We also can’t ignore any implicit biases against her skin color and gender, as white boys have gotten away with worse crime as adults.
Justice for children will lead us to better solutions, ones that address misbehavior not with punishment but with connection and strategies for transformation and growth inside of our homes parenting young children, in our schools educating youth, and better reformation practices in the justice system. It will allow for holistic flourishing for our children growing into adults with less wounds, better values, and a more peaceful society. We owe it to not just the children in our care, but all children and ourselves in creating a better world.
Frederick Douglass said, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Investing more resources to justice for children will yield benefits that far outweigh the cost of sustaining healthy communities.
Cyntoia Brown, now 30 years old, upon hearing the good news of her impending release promises to “live the rest of [my] life helping others, especially young people.”
I think we should do the same.