Cyntoia Brown grew up in prison — now what?

Illustration by Sammy Newman.

Brianna Scott, Opinions Editor

It seems as if the whole world is talking about the case of Cyntoia Brown, who was recently granted clemency after serving 15 years in prison for a crime she committed as a teen.

The case garnered national attention and support from celebrities on social media calling for justice.

In the #MeToo era, the stories of victims of sexual assault, physical abuse and sex trafficking are being brought to light. Brown’s case is not unique. Many young girls have been taken advantage of, leading them to make bad choices.

Brown fled from her home in 2004 after being put up for adoption by her mother who drank throughout her pregnancy with Brown. During that time, Brown met a pimp named Garion McGlothen. Nicknamed “Kut-Throat,” he forced the young girl into sex trafficking, and repeatedly physically abused and sexually assaulted her.

One August night, Brown killed a man named Johnny Allen who had picked her up. Brown testified in court that Allen had bought her for $150 to have sex with her, though they never engaged in the act. While Allen was sleeping, Brown shot him in the back of the head and took his wallet, two of his guns and fled the scene in his pick-up truck.

While Brown claimed her actions were in self-defense, it didn’t hold up in court. The jury believed her motive was robbery. At 16, Brown was tried as an adult and convicted of first degree murder, felony murder and robbery. She was given a life sentence of 51 years in prison, just one of hundreds of juveniles in Tennessee serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors.

In Brown’s case, she wasn’t allowed to testify and the jury wasn’t provided with much information about her backstory — she was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, neglected by her mother and homeless as a teen. These important details may have led to a different outcome in her sentencing.

This is the thing: I’m thrilled that Brown has been granted clemency. While imprisoned, she has received a college degree and proven to be an extraordinary woman deserving of a second chance. However, she should have never been imprisoned in the first place.

I can’t speak for why Brown shot Allen, but we must take into account the events in her life that led her to make that choice.

Brown was a product of her environment. She didn’t have any positive role models to look up to, was in and out of the welfare system and resorted to selling her body in order to survive.

We must teach children accountability for their actions, but we also must study why youth commit crimes.

Youth do not psychologically develop the same way as adults. Children tend to act irrationally and passionately, and even if they think through what they are doing, they don’t consider all of the consequences.

Now, when the system does something good, we should acknowledge it. But the system failed Brown in the first place and even with being granted clemency, it’s not enough. What is the system going to do to make sure Brown can lead a functioning successful life after release? What is the system going to do to make sure what happened to Brown as a teen, doesn’t happen to other teens?

Brown was a victim of sex trafficking and vilified for it. As a society, we criminalize sex work rather than look at why people turn to sex work — which is a valid profession for adults. However, when girls too young to consent are forced into this, we arrest them instead of providing help.

A bill has been introduced in Tennessee that would establishes a presumption that any minor who is a victim of a sex crime can use force to defend themselves.

We must invest in programs that seek to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes rather than throw them away and assume they will never change. But rehabilitation doesn’t mean accountability isn’t taken.

Brown won’t be released from prison until Aug. 7 2019, which means she must spend at least six more months behind bars. She will be supervised for 10 years after release. Along with that, people have to remember that Brown spent the rest of her teen years and a good chunk of her adulthood in jail. The world has changed drastically since she was sentenced in 2004 and because of that, she will have to endure the psychological struggle of being thrown back into a society she isn’t familiar with.

Lastly, Brown wasn’t granted a full pardon — her record has not been expunged. Therefore, it’s going to be difficult for Brown to find a job as a convicted felon. Brown also cannot vote.

Being labeled a criminal follows you your entire life even after you’re released and changed as a person. Why should people be punished for redeeming themselves?

Brown’s story is one of redemption. More children deserve a second chance to see sunlight rather than the dark, cold inside of a jail cell with a dirty toilet and uncomfortable twin-sized bed. However, many of those children should have never been in jail in the first place. Jail is no place to grow up.

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