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Cyntoia Brown: Justice Delayed and Denied

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a former teen sex trafficking victim who received a life sentence at age 16 for killing a man who allegedly paid money to have sex with her. Brown was tried as an adult and had no chance of parole until she would have turned 61. Brown, now 30, after having served 15 years, will be released in August and must remain on parole for 10 years. Her case sparked the attention of the media with support by celebrities Rihanna, Ashley Judd and Kim Kardashian West.

Cyntoia Brown did not receive a get out of jail free card. Her clemency conditions require that she remain on parole for 10 years. She will not be free of parole conditions until she turns 40. Clemency differs from a pardon. In clemency, an inmate’s sentence is reduced, usually with some conditions. In a pardon, a person’s conviction is completely wiped out. Today, we hear the pardon word being considered and thrown around like Frisbees in the cases of Trump companions, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen but not in the case of Cyntoia Brown.

Brown has been a model prison earning an AA degree, counseling and mentoring other youth offenders and working towards earning her bachelor’s degree while in prison. These reasons in addition to her status as a sex trafficking victim at the time of her offense speak volumes in support of a full pardon. I applaud the governor for granting clemency. I just wish that that Gov. Haslam would have seen fit to grant Brown the true justice she deserved. He lacked the courage to do the right thing. Gov. Haslam did grant 15 pardons to individuals and is considering other clemency requests before he leaves office on January 19.

The criminal justice system does not usually work in favor of minorities. More than half of the criminal justice system is made up of African Americans and Hispanics. The disparity of Cyntoia Brown and other minorities receiving harsh sentences goes unnoticed in most instances. Yet, an Ethan Couch, a white teen, who plowed over 4 persons with his car in 2013, killing all 4 of them, received a sentence of 10 years probation. Couch’s case was argued as the Affluenza defense – that his parents’ irresponsibility and wealth contributed to his actions. The criminal justice system, judge or jury gave no regard to Brown being a teen sex trafficking victim.

And Brown is not the only sex trafficking inmate serving time. Most jurisdictions prosecute sex trafficking victims for prostitution. The MeToo movement and celebrities speaking out against sexual injustices committed by Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Les Moonves and others must speak out against criminal disparities in treatment of sex trafficking victims and persons of color. The Cyntoia Browns are the most vulnerable of all victims of sexual assault.

Until the criminal justice system is over hauled to fairly treat a Cyntoia Brown like an Ethan Couch, justice will remain elusive for many minorities, women and victims of sex crimes without a celebrity to advocate for them.

Cyntoia Brown deserved a full pardon—not clemency.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a lawyer and former Baltimore prosecutor.