In 2006, Cyntoia Brown was convicted of shooting and killing Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old man who had “bought her for sex” for $150. She was sentenced to 51 years in prison.
Earlier this month, Governor Haslam granted her clemency as one of his final acts in office. She has survived 15 years of her sentence already but will now be released to parole supervision in August this year.
Cyntoia Brown has received a lot of media attention due to the specifics of her case. She was only 16-years-old when sentenced yet she was tried as an adult. She argued against her sentence by citing a 2012 ruling which stated that to give a child a life sentence without parole is unconstitutional.
The case raised an enormous number of questions and issues – why was a young girl so scared for her life that she shot a man dead? Why was she tried as an adult when she was only 16? And most uncomfortable of all – would this sort of sentencing have happened to a 16-year-old white girl?
There is no point hiding from these questions anymore. Silence on these horrific issues allows for them to continue.
It could be argued that the high profile celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Ashely Judd who shared messages of support for Cyntoia Brown on social media brought her case into the public eye. Of course, this did help, but in reality there has been a huge amount of grassroots support and momentum – raised predominantly by women of colour.
Democrat Stacey Abrams tweeted: “Justice has finally been served … This victory belongs to Cyntoia Brown & to the Tennessee human trafficking activists, especially Black women, who refused to concede to injustice & instead organized to create change.”
Although this change took 15 years to push through, cases like Brown’s show the influence the general public can have when they refuse to be silent on an issue.
But what happens when people do stay silent on an uncomfortable issue, such as race? Black women and girls are not being kept safe, and not only that, their voices are not valued as highly as their white counterparts’.
To put this into perspective, the docuseries ‘Surviving R Kelly’ aired in the US this month, documenting the life and alleged abuses of the global megastar. (Another documentary, ‘R Kelly: Sexy, Girls & Videotapes’, was broadcast in the UK in 2018).
Why have this man’s actions been allowed to continue for so long? Is it merely because of his money and influence, or it is because his victims have all been young black women? Had R. Kelly been abusing and violating young white women, would this have been allowed to go on for so long, with the same ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude?
It’s vital, although massively depressing, to remember that Cyntoia’s story is not unique. Since 2007, a national hotline for sex trafficking operated by Polaris has received reports of 34,700 sex trafficking cases inside the United States.
The Washington Post describes research showing that “black girls accused of crimes find less leniency in the criminal justice system.” A study by Georgetown University found that prosecutors dismissed an average of three out of every 10 cases involving black girls, but seven of 10 cases involving white girls.
Now a 30-year-old woman, Cyntoia Brown is still not ‘free’. She won’t be able to vote, or apply for many jobs. She will be on parole for the next 10 years, and she will have to live with the horrors of what has happened to her.
But, she is one module away from completing a bachelor’s degree, and plans to set up an organisation to help stop other young girls ending up in her situation. Essentially, Cyntoia Brown is freeing herself, and hopefully she will feel some of the love that is pouring her way from all over the world.
If you’re interested in learning more about Cyontia Brown’s case, there is a documentary called ‘Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story’. If you want write to Cyntoia, you can send letters to “Miss Cyntoia Brown #410593, Tennessee Prison for Women, Unit 1 West, D- 49, 3881 Stewarts Lane Nashville, TN 37218.