When news broke on Monday that Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam had granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who will be released to parole supervision in August after serving 15 years of a 51-year sentence, joy spread across the country. Activists, politicians, juvenile justice advocates, parents and celebrities cheered the fact that Brown would not spend much of the rest of her life in jail for the murder of a man 30 years her senior who bought her for sex when she was 16.
In 2004, Brown was tried as an adult and convicted for killing Johnny Mitchell Allen, who Brown said had solicited her for sex. Prosecutors then argued she robbed him, but Brown said she took Allen’s money out of fear of her violent pimp, nicknamed “Cut Throat.” In a 2011 documentary, Brown talked about being forced into prostitution, sex-trafficked and raped repeatedly.
Since Brown’s conviction, juvenile sentencing guidelines in Tennessee have been amended. Brown, now 30, has furthered her education while incarcerated and is collaborating with Tennessee’s juvenile justice system to help at-risk young people. Her advocates say she plans to start a nonprofit to further her efforts to help other young people. In addition to citing the harshness of Brown’s original sentence in a statement about his decision, Gov. Haslam pointed to the “extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”
Cyntoia Brown’s commutation comes on the heels of massive efforts by everyone from Black Lives Matter Nashville, which protested repeatedly and urged outgoing Gov. Haslam to review the case and grant leniency, to celebrities including Rihanna, Ashley Judd and Kim Kardashian West.
A week after the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly” became the center of public conversation for its gruesome accounts of alleged sexual and physical abuse of multiple young girls by the singer (which R. Kelly has denied in the past), Brown’s commutation extends a much-needed conversation on the impact of sexual assault and sex trafficking on young, black women. Now that the series has aired and Cyntoia Brown has been awarded her freedom, none of us can go back to business as usual. As a country, we must continue to address mindsets, create policies and find solutions to mitigate the impact of sex trafficking, especially in communities of color.
Cyntoia Brown’s story is one shared by thousands of women and girls every year. The Polaris Project, which operates a national hotline for sex trafficking, estimated there were over 10,000 individual victims in the United States in 2017. In Tennessee, where Cyntoia Brown and I both live, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation identified sex trafficking in 2018 as the second fastest growing crime (just behind drug trafficking) .
While every incidence of sex trafficking does not end the way Cyntoia Brown’s story did, almost 25% of victims have some interaction with the criminal justice system, according to Polaris. This volume highlights the need for continued criminal justice reforms that consider the trauma of sex trafficking and sex work. Incoming Tennessee State Rep. London Lamar was moved by Cyntoia Brown’s case to sponsor a resolution that will do just that. Lamar plans to draft legislation that will keep youth who commit violent crimes from being charged as adults if sex trafficking is involved. This is the type of progressive policy needed in every state as sex trade numbers grow, putting youth in marginalized communities even more at risk of becoming incarcerated victims.
Responses on social media and elsewhere to “Surviving R. Kelly” show why education about the sex trade and associated trauma must continue as a part of our national conversation. Told from the vantage point of women who were in relationships with Kelly and their family members, the series exposed a hole in the collective understanding of sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Many of the reactions were emotional and raw, but some refused to see the women – who perhaps didn’t conform to their expectations of how a trafficked or abused person should look or act – as victims.
Even as many celebrated Cyntoia Brown’s commutation, there were dissenters who questioned her worth in a similar way. To some, she was just a bad teenager – as the Tennessee Supreme Court believed when they sentenced her to serve 51 years in prison. Our justice system and society at large tend to judge victims of sex trafficking more harshly than the reality of their circumstances should dictate. In 2017, Mariame Kaba and Brit Schulte warned in The Appeal against making a perfect victim out of Cyntoia Brown. They urged advocates to avoid euphemizing her story because doing so “avoids the complexity of her experience,” allowing folks to treat Brown as extraordinary or exceptional while thousands of women’s stories get questioned or go unheard.
This point resonates as we look ahead in the movement for advocacy for youth sex trafficking victims and sex trade workers. There is no perfect set of circumstances, but every child involved in the sex trade deserves advocacy and justice.
Cyntoia Brown’s case, because of its high profile, was the first interaction many Americans will have with the widespread scourge of sex trafficking in the United States. “Surviving R. Kelly” has sparked one of the most pervasive conversations about sexual abuse we have had as a country to date. We must push forward and refuse to let what they’ve taught us recede from our collective consciousness.
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Stay involved in the conversation and advocacy work. Organizations exist to help, such as Young Women’s Empowerment Project, the Polaris Project, Survived & Punished, which organizes to decriminalize the stories of women like Cyntoia Brown, and the #GirlsToo movement with Girls, Inc., which is working to “shift the deeply entrenched norms that lead to sexual harassment and violence in our society.” Do not let the work end – because we have so far to go to support women and girls who survive sex trafficking and to get justice for those who don’t.