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The Case Of Cyntoia Brown And Why The Criminal Justice System Must Be Reviewed

Colored. Poor. Female. Cyntoia Brown was all three, making her part of one of the most vulnerable segments in American society. Cyntoia has spent most of her early adult life behind bars after killing a man who had bought her for sex when she was only 16 years old. She was a runaway who was forced by a violent boyfriend into prostitution.

Despite being a minor, the human trafficking victim was tried as an adult and sentenced to life behind bars. In August of this year, Cyntoia will finally be released. She is now 31 years old.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted her clemency stating that Cyntoia’s story was a “tragic and complex case” and that the punishment given to her was “too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”



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Cyntoia’s story was picked up by American media in 2017 during the rise of the #MeToo movement. Her supporters started the #FreeCyntoiaBrown movement as they also began a dialog about the unjust incarceration of minors and children, victims of sex trafficking, and the abuse of women of color. Numerous A-list celebrities such as Ashley Judd, Rihanna, and Kim Kardashian West expressed their support for Cyntoia.

While in prison, Cyntoia has taken steps to rebuild her life and has even obtained an associate degree from Lipscomb University’s LIFE (Lipscomb Initiative for Education) program, which gives incarcerated women access to education while interacting with fellow students who are ordinary civilians. It is one of the few programs in the US that offers college degrees to inmates. Such programs aim to help inmates to find stable livelihood and re-assimilate into society once they are freed.



In this Dec. 18, 2015 photo, inmate Cyntoia Brown of the Tennessee Prison for Women delivers a commencement address before receiving her associate degree from Lipscomb University. When Brown was 16 she received a life sentence for the murder of Johnny Mitchell Allen. Brown's life sentence, and the practice of sentencing young people to a lifetime behind bars for even the most heinous of crimes, has drawn increased scrutiny in Tennessee and nationwide. In Tennessee, 183 people are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were teens. The Supreme Court's rulings have had no impact. That's because state law already includes a mandatory review after 51 years — a length of time that advocates call a "virtual life sentence." In Tennessee, 183 people are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were teens. The Supreme Court's rulings have had no impact. That's because state law already includes a mandatory review after 51 years — a length of time that advocates call a "virtual life sentence." #freecyntoiabrown #cyntoiabrownstory #instagood

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A fresh start is in the very near future for Cyntoia as she has worked on improving herself with the goal of helping others. In a statement released through her legal team, she said, “With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”

Cyntoia’s is an important case that puts the US’s criminal justice system under scrutiny as there are many others like her in the prison system. Women and girls who are of color and poor end up in the prison system. Many of them have the same story as Cyntoia: they come from abusive households or relationships and they are usually victims of sexual assault or exploitation.

In an interview with Huffington Post, national prison reform expert Alyssa Benedict points out that women and minors in the prison system end up there because of “behaviors that tend to be geared towards survival.” Many of them did not commit violent crimes and are incarcerated because of non-violent offenses such as drug use and possession, sex work, and shoplifting. Aside from being poverty-stricken, those in this segment of society also have mental health issues that are caused by harsh living conditions. Alyssa adds that “Cyntoia’s story highlights how young, poor girls and women who are surviving these unstable and oppressive situations in their communities are literally being punished for it.”



@Regrann from @moveon - In 2004, a 16 year old runaway named Cyntoia Brown was picked up in Nashville, Tennessee, by a forty-three year old man who planned to have sex with her in exchange for money. At the time, Cyntoia was living in a motel room with an adult male pimp, Cut-throat, who had been prostituting her and violently abusing her sexually, mentally, and physically, while also providing her with drugs. Late that night, as Cyntoia was lying naked in the bed with the man who had picked her up for sex, her paranoia growing from the drugs and abuse she had suffered, Cyntoia became convinced that the man intended to cause her bodily harm. She fired one bullet at the man, killing him. She then picked up some items to bring back to her pimp so she would not be beaten. She drove the man’s car to a Wal-Mart parking lot and walked back to her pimp’s motel room. Cyntoia was quickly arrested, charged as an adult, and convicted of first degree murder. She was sentenced to a life sentence (60 years in prison), and will be required to serve 51 calendar years before she can be considered for parole. Since 2004, Cyntoia has been working diligently to make amends for her crime. Today, Cyntoia is an incredibly intelligent, compassionate, and resilient young woman. She recently graduated with an Associates of Arts degree with a GPA of 4.0 from Lipscomb University's LIFE Program (Lipscomb Initiative For Education), and she will soon earn her Bachelor's degree from Lipscomb. As she has progressed in her rehabilitation, Cyntoia has served as a beacon of light in the prison environment. She has helped other inmates earn their GEDs, worked in various meaningful jobs, and encouraged those around her to be their best selves. She has maintained meaningful relationships with positive mentors in the community, many of whom feel that they have become better people through their friendship with Cyntoia. Sign the petition in our bio to #FreeCyntoiaBrown #CyntoiaBrown

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Freeing Cyntoia Brown is a small, but significant step in raising awareness about the flaws of the criminal justice system not just in the US, but all over the world. It puts the spotlight on important issues that surround those who are vulnerable and points to the direction of various improvements that can be made in the criminal justice system.


Photos from @cyntoiabrownfoundation