Mar 17, 2022 - News

Cyntoia Brown-Long, former Gov. Bill Haslam reunite

Cyntoia Brown Long.

Cyntoia Brown-Long. Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Former Gov. Bill Haslam and criminal justice reform advocate Cyntoia Brown-Long have forged an unlikely friendship in the years since he issued an order calling for her release from prison.

  • They grew up "worlds apart," Haslam said. But at an event this week, they both expressed the need for change, particularly for juvenile offenders.

Why it matters: Brown-Long, who was convicted of first-degree murder as a teenager, has become a national figure. Her story brought attention to issues of human trafficking and Tennessee's harsh sentences for juveniles convicted of serious crimes.

  • Haslam's support could give her cause bipartisan appeal.

Flashback: Brown-Long was convicted of fatally shooting real estate agent Johnny Allen in the back of the head in 2004, when she was 16 years old. She was given a life sentence, which required a 51-year wait before she was eligible for parole.

  • Advocates said Brown-Long was a victim of sex trafficking who was forced into prostitution. Rihanna and Kim Kardashian took up her cause, saying the case deserved reconsideration.
  • Haslam agreed and granted her clemency in 2019, citing her age at the time of the crime and her rehabilitation in prison.

Driving the news: Haslam and Brown-Long were reunited Tuesday for an event at Vanderbilt University. They joked, hugged and found common ground.

  • "My viewpoint [after] peering into the judicial system is we have too many people serving too long," Haslam said. "We have too many juveniles serving too long."
  • "Amen," Brown-Long responded.

The intrigue: Haslam said he waited too long to consider clemency cases as governor and ultimately ran out of time.

  • "It was a big mistake," Haslam said, adding that "a lot more cases" deserved review.

The big picture: Many others in Tennessee are serving 51-year life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.

The bottom line: Haslam and Brown-Long agreed that case-by-case clemency reviews would fail to address the underlying issue.

  • "Obviously I'm a proponent for clemency, but when you think about it, this is one person," Brown-Long said.
  • "Clemency's not the answer," Haslam responded. "The scale doesn't work."
  • "Parole reform is the answer," Brown-Long said.
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