By Ashley Benkarski
MT. JULIET, TN — Cyntoia Brown-Long talked to the public at Greater United Methodist Church Dec. 3 about her experiences as a child sex trafficking victim caught in the criminal justice system and her mission to spread awareness about stories like hers.
End Slavery TN reported that on average 94 minors are trafficked in the state each month. The median age of victims is 13.
Brown was 16 when sentenced for the murder of realtor Johnny Allen, who she said picked her up for sex and she killed in self-defense. Sentenced to life, she was granted clemency by then-Governor Bill Haslam, becoming a free citizen in August.
Local students read and discussed Brown’s book, “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System” and helped organize efforts to get her to speak with Students for Criminal Justice Reform.
Brown’s case is significant not just because of her outstanding achievements behind bars or celebrity advocacy for her release but also because it re-examined state law that imposed life sentences on minors convicted of murder.
Sex trafficking laws have changed, shifting the narrative surrounding victims. Minors involved in sex work were charged and prosecuted for prostitution; now they’re treated as victims of sex trafficking and charges are brought against those who purchase them.
Brown spoke on what led her into the path of her trafficker, the abuse she endured and life in the prison system. Her redemption and reliance on faith in hard times helped her work toward her freedom and become who she was meant to be.
While incarcerated, Brown achieved a degree through Lipscomb University that allowed her to attend classes with peers and became a mentor for women in the prison. She worked with lawyers on her own appeals case, which was denied three times. And in a story with so much pain she found love, marrying musician Jamie Long.
“I didn’t know how to accept life, I didn’t know how to accept no. So when I was told that I would spend the rest of my life in prison I went through this phase where I was like, ‘I’m gonna get out of here, I don’t know how,’” Brown said. So she taught herself case law and the justice system. “Behind that was just this defiance. Even when I didn’t know how I was going to get through, I just knew I was gonna get through.”
Brown said until she looked into the cases of herself and others like her, she wasn’t aware she was a sex trafficking victim–she saw it the way much of society does, as prostitution.
She countered by noting teens, especially ones that have experienced trauma, lack the capacity to fully control or understand their responses to certain stimuli. Indeed, recent studies have suggested the brain is not fully developed until age 24, a threshold critically beyond what society legally accepts as adult.
She reflected on her learning journey, personal and educational, and saw the paths that led her to being trafficked, she said. “When I did I started to see all these unhealthy patterns, all these unhealthy understandings of relationships, of sex and what it means. I saw how that played a role in me ending up 10 years old being trafficked. I saw that the man that was trafficking me, he was standing at the end of a journey that started long before I had ever even met him.”
She’s since launched an advocacy program with Epic Girl called GLITTER (Grassroots Learning Initiative for Teen Trafficking, Exploitation, and Rape).
Brown’s achievements while incarcerated are indicative of rehabilitative success as opposed
to and in spite of punitive justice. And while some float the argument that recidivism rates haven’t changed much with rehabilitation, perhaps a focus on prison budgets for such programs might yield a more successful approach.
Success stories like Cyntoia’s aren’t impossible in the justice system, they’re underfunded. And as long as the conversation around sex trafficking blames the victims, progress will be denied and their suffering will continue.
For more information on state sex trafficking laws, visit https://www.endslaverytn.org/human-trafficking-and-slavery-laws.