After serving 15 years — half of her life — in prison of what would have been a life sentence, Cyntoia Brown is now free.
She left the Tennessee Prison for Women on the morning of Aug. 7.
The now 31-year-old was tried as an adult at 16 years old and convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree felony murder and aggravated robbery. She was sentenced to life behind bars for what she testified was self-defense from her rapist. During her trial, Brown said she was forced into prostitution by a pimp dubbed “Cut Throat.” She was solicited for sex by Johnny Mitchell Allen. Allen brought Brown back to his house to rape her, she testified. She resisted. Brown said she saw Allen reach under his bed, leading her to believe he was going to kill her. She said she reached for a gun in her purse and shot him in self-defense, but the prosecution argued during her trial that because she took Allen’s wallet afterward, she shot him to rob him.
The harsh sentence for a teenage girl who was the victim of child sex trafficking sparked outrage nationwide. She even received support from celebrities like reality star Kim Kardashian West, singer Rihanna and actress Ashley Judd. In January, then-Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown clemency.
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However, the statement still condemned Brown’s act without stressing the fact that child sex slaves are victims.
“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” it said. “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.”
Experts on child sex trafficking have said that if Brown were tried today and not in 2004, she would have never been found guilty. In January, WZTV anchor Stacy Case, who had been doing investigative work on sex trafficking in Tennessee, said courts today would have viewed her as a victim, not a cold-blooded murderer. In fact, the term “child prostitute” — found repeatedly in court documents covering Brown’s case — is no longer acceptable to use. It is both harmful — and inaccurate — to imply a child can consent to being pimped out and abused.
“If Cyntoia Brown were tried today, legal experts say she would not have been tried in the same way,” she said. “Our courts today would view her as a child sex slave … she would be viewed as a victim.”
During her time in prison, Brown earned an associate’s and bachelor’s degree and worked to help at-risk youth in the juvenile justice system. The 2011 documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” Brown discusses her desire to help others.
Brown received her associate degree from Lipscomb University in 2015 and a bachelor’s in the Tennessee Prison for Women in May. She’s also collaborated with Tennesee’s Juvenile Justice System to help counsel at-risk youth.
According to The Sentencing Project, girls make up an increasing percentage of all teen arrests: 29.9% in 2017. According to the NAACP, Black children make up 32% of children who are arrested. Though African Americans and Hispanics only make up 32% of the U.S. population, they make up 56% of all incarcerated people in the U.S., as of 2015.
Brown said she wants to help other women and girls like her, who have been survivors of abuse.
“I look forward to using my experiences to help other women and girls suffering abuse and exploitation,” Brown said in a statement following her release.