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Cyntoia Brown was 16 years old when she was sentenced to life in prison. Could her clemency give hope to other juvenile lifers?

Cyntoia Brown, who was released from prison Wednesday after she was granted clemency, had been one of 182 "juvenile lifers" in Tennessee, or someone under the age of 18 who was sentenced to life in prison. Brown, now 31, was convicted for murdering a man who allegedly hired her as a teenage prostitute.

At the time of her 2006 sentencing, a judge ruled Brown would not be eligible for parole until she was in her late sixties. Tennessee has the highest minimum an individual with a life sentence must serve to be eligible for a review. State law mandates someone to be behind bars for 60 years, but that number can drop to 51 years at the earliest for good behavior. 

Texas has the next highest barrier, requiring at least 40 years of time served in eligible cases. According to Ashley Nellis, a senior researcher at The Sentencing Project, the nationwide average has historically been about 25 years. 

Criminal justice reform advocates say her case could bring much-needed attention to what's become a widespread issue.

Cyntoia Brown
Cyntoia Brown AP

"The public is largely unaware of life sentences for juveniles, or even adults for that matter, around the country," Nellis told CBS News. "The U.S. rate for life sentences far outpaces the rest of the world, and it's growing more rapidly than ever."

Juveniles who are sentenced to life in prison are tried as adults and then the possibility of parole is determined on a case-by-case basis. 

The Sentencing Project estimates there are 8,000 individuals nationwide serving juvenile life sentences with the possibility of parole after they serve an extended period of time.

"We appear by some accounts in this era of criminal justice reform to be making progress, but life sentences haven't been given their fair shake," Nellis added.  

Brown's lawyers said in court she was a sex-trafficking victim. According to court documents, Brown ran away from her adoptive family in July 2004. She began living with an abusive man, referred to as "Cut Throat" in the documents, who forced her into prostitution. 

Brown was tried and convicted as an adult of first-degree felony murder and aggravated robbery, after she shot a 43-year-old man who she said hired her for sex. 

In court, Brown's lawyers argued their client, 16 years old at the time of the crime, was acting in self-defense. However, prosecutors said the crime was committed with the intent to steal. Brown fled the scene with money and two guns she told police she intended to pawn.

"Cyntoia's case touches on a lot of concerns in our society that are getting more attention now than ever," said Nellis. "I would hope in today's world, she would at least get a little bit more sympathy for the fact that she had been put in that situation at such a young age."

Brown's lawyers argued their client deserved post-conviction relief after the Supreme Court's Miller v. Alabama ruling in 2012. That decision said life without parole sentences for juveniles violated the constitution's eighth amendment prohibiting cruel or unusual punishments. 

The only issue with that basis of appeal in Brown's case is that she was eligible for parole. It would just take over half a century to happen. 

The Sentencing Project estimates there are approximately 2,100 inmates serving juvenile life sentences without the possibility of review, who now have a chance for relief under recent rulings such as Miller v. Alabama.

There's an increasing push by reform advocates to have life without the possibility of parole eliminated for all offenders. Most argue long sentences have minimal impact on improving public safety or deterring criminal behavior. 

Nellis said a primary reform would be capping any life sentence at 20 years. After this time period, she says, then there should be an opportunity for review.  

A recent study found an increased reluctance by states to grant parole to eligible individuals serving life sentences. Nellis said Brown's case could also shed light on parole board reform, and the important rehabilitative function it can serve when utilized correctly.

The issue is garnering national attention. A wave of celebrities including Kim Kardashian West and Rihanna highlighted Brown's case on social media in November of 2017. At the time, Brown's lawyer told the Associated Press he was unsure what prompted the surge of support.

"She is really just lucky that she got the attention of these Hollywood celebrities," Nellis added. "As someone who has looked at a lot of these individuals around the country, there are many, many more cases. Everyone deserves a second look."

Earlier this year, outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown clemency. In a statement, the Republican said his decision stemmed from Brown's "extraordinary personal transformation" while incarcerated, including the completion of her GED and an associate degree. 

Brown will be on parole for the next ten years. She is also subject to a release plan and supervision conditions, including employment and counseling requirements. 

"I thank Governor and First Lady Haslam for their vote of confidence in me," Brown wrote in a statement released Monday. "With the Lord's help, I will make them as well as the rest of my supporters proud."

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