Cyntoia Brown was just 16 years old when she killed the man who had just purchased her for sex. She’s been serving a life sentence for the last 15 years, in what many consider a travesty of justice. Sex trafficked at a very young age, Brown was repeatedly raped and physically abused by her pimp, a man called “Cut Throat.”
The 2011 documentary film about her life, crime, and sentencing called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story also revealed that Brown likely suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, which has many side effects, not the least of which can be brain damage. Her mother has admitted to drinking heavily while she was pregnant. That evidence was not submitted during her 2004 trial and Derri Smith, founder, and CEO of non-profit End Slavery Tennessee told CNN that if tried today, her case would likely be handled very differently.
“If you look at Cyntoia’s original transcripts, they are peppered with the phrase ‘teen prostitute.’ We know today there’s no such thing as a teen prostitute … because this teen may think that she decided this was her idea to be raped multiple times a day and give money to someone else, it’s pretty clear there’s an adult behind that who’s manipulating and exploiting her.”
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown a commutation to parole just a few hours ago, setting her release date for August 7th and keeping her on parole for 10 years. “Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Haslam said in a statement. “Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life. Transformation should be accompanied by hope.”
Brown’s case was remarkable in that the victim of a heinous crime was treated more like a criminal with intent to steal rather than a traumatized minor acting in her own self-defense. Her case had garnered attention over the years, but recently Ashley Judd, Kim Kardashian, and Rihanna had all spoken out in the hopes of helping draw attention to her inhumane sentencing. The hashtag #Clemency4Cyntoia began to go viral and social justice and criminal reform activists began to push for a reexamination of her case.
Brown has a long road ahead of her, but she also has a lot of people rooting for her success. “She is light years today, as a woman, different from the traumatized 16-year-old that she was,” Smith tells CNN. “She’s mentoring… troubled youth, working on her college degree, she is planning a nonprofit so she can help other young people.”
The commutation of Brown’s sentence is a win for victims of sex trafficking everywhere. It’s way more common than most would assume for young women who have been sexually abused and trafficked to be treated like criminals in our justice system. Brown is one of many and this is an absolute horror that everyone should be aware of, especially women of color as the majority of the young women tried as criminals instead of treated as victims are Black and Brown.