On Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to sex abuse and human trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown. In 2006, Brown, who was forced into prostitution as a teenager, was tried as an adult at 16-years-old and sentenced to life in prison for killing one of her abusers. CNN reports that, with her sentence commuted, Brown will now be released on parole on Aug. 7, having served 15 of the 51 years previously required for her to be eligible for parole.
While this is undeniably good news for Cyntoia Brown and all who fought for her release, Haslam’s decision doesn’t erase the underlying injustices that handed Brown such a severe sentence in the first place. According to Derri Smith, founder of the non-profit End Slavery in Tennessee, one reason Brown’s case was mishandled was that prosecutors failed to understand the abusive nature of her circumstances, which left no room for her consent or agency.
“If you look at Cyntoia’s original transcripts, they are peppered with the phrase ‘teen prostitute,'” she says “Well we know today there’s no such thing as a teen prostitute … it’s pretty clear there’s an adult behind that who’s manipulating and exploiting her.”
Advocates have long rallied against using the terms “teen prostitute” or “child prostitute” when referring to these underaged victims of trafficking — because it wrongly implies that they have agency or the ability to consent in these situations.
Brown’s case has sparked widespread outcry from the public, sparking statements from celebrities such as Rihanna and Kim Kardashian. In the weeks leading up to Brown’s clemency hearing, there was widespread pressure for Haslam to commute Brown’s sentence. AJC spoke with some Atlanta-based protesters, including Baptist Minister Leea Allen, who succinctly articulated the goal of the demonstration: “We are demanding that our sister Cyntoia be set free” she said.
The system has failed. It’s heart breaking to see a young girl sex trafficked then when she has the courage to fight back is jailed for life! We have to do better & do what’s right. I’ve called my attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this. #FreeCyntoiaBrown pic.twitter.com/73y26mLp7u
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) November 21, 2017
In a statement released after his decision, Haslam stated “Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. 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.”
According to The Tennessean, Brown’s time on parole will require her to attend counseling sessions, perform 50 hours of community service and get a job.
After the decision, Brown described the new purpose she found in life. “With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people” she said. “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”