Cyntoia Brown-Long America's criminal justice system is supposed to protect us. Often it does the opposite.

We shouldn’t assume that everyone who makes a mistake deserves to go to prison. This isn’t always a question of good versus evil.
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By Cyntoia Brown-Long

America will never be in the business of rehabilitation or restorative justice if we cannot change the adversarial nature of the process. When a crime occurs, it’s the state against the individual. And the victim, although the state is representing them, often doesn’t get heard either. It's all very sterile. It doesn’t give people room and space and voice to work through the actions and reactions and consequences of behavior. It doesn’t give opportunities for healing to take place. This speaks to the way the system has no respect for the people caught up in it.

The system is built to protect us — or so we’ve been told. But it doesn’t speak to the community, it doesn’t respect the community or encourage community. And that has a dehumanizing effect, for everyone involved. The idea of personhood is lost.

The system is built to protect us — or so we’ve been told. But it doesn’t speak to the community, it doesn’t respect the community or encourage community. And that has a dehumanizing effect.

If we're really going to be invested in trying to come at justice in a way that improves society, if we're really going to be invested in rehabilitating people, then we have to start thinking of people as people. And we have to start thinking about what is best for them. What is it that we can do for this individual? How can we restore them back into the community? The fundamental flaw that I've seen with our criminal justice system is that the system has a tendency to just write people off so easily. You make one mistake, and your life is changed forever. Just because someone makes one mistake, that doesn't mean that you completely throw them away. The system doesn't respect the humanity or the complexity of people.

When prosecutors approach a case, they're just looking at the set of facts surrounding one moment. They're not particularly interested in what happens before or after. District attorneys have access to so many more resources than they are using. We shouldn’t assume that everyone who makes a mistake deserves to go to prison. So often this isn’t a question of good versus evil, but prosecutors and district attorneys have that attitude coming in. How can we get rid of this person? How can we hide them away?

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Of course there are extreme cases where people deserve harsher punishments. But I think when it comes to making sure that the victim gets some kind of closure and that the defendant is treated as humanely as possible, and as fairly as possible, we can do so much better. A crime has been committed, the balance in our community has been disrupted. What is it that we can do? What medium can we find here in order to approach this in a more restorative manner?

Closure is such an important element here, and one that the justice system right now has very little regard for. How do we reach closure? In my case, I wish that I had been able to speak to the family of the man I killed. Who knows where that family would be right now if they were able to get some of their questions answered, and if they were able to express some of the things that they were feeling in a direct way. I don’t mean at an impersonal sentencing hearing, but in a series of conversations.

Because the truth is, I wanted to talk to this family. I wanted to let them know how I felt. But my lawyer wouldn’t let me because she thought it would have hurt my case. Because everything you say in court can and will be used against you — that’s the reality, it’s not just some coffee mug quote. And that was very frustrating and very unfortunate.

As I also know from experience, the system is particularly cruel in the way that it treats juveniles. I it is absolutely not fair for us to continue treating juveniles the same way as we do adults. Yes, for certain offenses we have to consider stiffer reactions. But at the end of the day, the whole goal of the juvenile justice system is to remove the taint of criminality, not to treat children as criminals. The Supreme Court ruled in Roper vs. Simmons, in Graham v. Florida, and in Miller v. Alabama that juveniles and adults are different in terms of culpability. This has to translate to sentencing as well. How are you going to sentence two people that don’t share the same level of culpability to an equal amount of time? It doesn’t make legal sense, it doesn’t make moral sense, and it doesn’t make common sense.

I’m writing this book because I want people to be able to learn from my experiences with the criminal justice system — and the behavior that lead me to end up in the system in the first place. I want people to read it and think about the women in their lives — their daughters, their sisters, their mothers. Think about the 15-year-olds that you have known. Think about the person you were at 15.

The decisions that we make at that age are not the same decisions that we would make as adults. You simply don't think the same. And it's not just a developmental thing, it’s not just a social thing, it's actually physical. Your brain is not the same. Your brain isn't capable of processing consequences, processing your actions and in controlling your impulses when you're a juvenile. When someone commits a crime as a juvenile, it's not an indicator of who they're going to be in the future.

I hope women who are coming up and experiencing these things can read it and realize I didn't have a blueprint in my life. But I made it, and they can too. You don’t have to be a prisoner to your past, and your life is more than your worst mistakes. God has truly redeemed me and restored me back to the community, back to myself. And just the same way He brought me through this, He can bring you out of whatever it is that you're going through.

As told to THINK editor Meredith Bennett-Smith. Edited and condensed for clarity.