Know This

The Legal System Has Failed Victims of Sex-Trafficking

Cyntoia Brown is the poster child

Whether we subconsciously acknowledge it or not, self-defense is a term we use as a crutch.We trust that if, god forbid, we should have to defend ourselves to a point that our attacker dies, the law will be on our side. But that’s not always the case. That’s the reality now 30-year-old Cyntoia Brown has found herself in. After shooting a 43-year-old man who bought her for sex when she was just 16-years-old, she was sent to jail. The legal system has failed her.

Cyntoia was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility parole. However, Tennessee law and the state Supreme Court state she must serve 51 years of her sentence before being eligible for release.

If not overruled, Cyntoia will be 69 years old when she is eligible for parole. Over half her life taken from her by a legal system ill equipped to assist victims of sex-trafficking. These children being forced into sex-trafficking know nothing else. Instead of rehabilitating them and trying to undo damage done to them, we send them to jail.

But of course that’s only if you’re a female and not white. Put this into the context of all the Brock Turner’s, Brett Kavanaugh’s, and most recently Jacob Anderson. Each man was accused of sexual assault and barely received a slap on the wrist for fear ‘their future would be ruined’.

Saying that the legal system is backwards when it comes to sex crimes would be the understatement of the century. It has re-victimized victims and made heroes of their attackers.

Brown herself was a victim in many ways. An abuse victim, a victim of sex trafficking, and a victim of time. 

One year after she was arrested, the US adopted the federal anti-trafficking law.  In 2016 the Office of Children and Family Services increased their work to stop sex trafficking by focusing on prevention. Their goal is to protect youth at risk of being trafficked.

After Dan Birman’s documentary on Cyntoia, Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, children under 18 arrested in Tennessee for prostitution can no longer be tried as adults. Instead we treat them as we always should have, victims of sex-trafficking.

It’s hard to find a story with the same magnitude as Cyntoia’s. But she’s not exactly an anomaly. There are unfortunately many cases like hers that have not received the same amount of publicity. That’s not to say Cyntoia does not deserve this publicity because she absolutely does.

What happened to her then and what is happening to her now is unjust.

Many others are also falling victim to the same legal system. Laws to protect sex-trafficking victims are severely lacking to this day. In 2017, a woman named Yvette was sentenced to to 15 years for trafficking a minor and 8 years for a robbery in San Antonio, Texas.

Yvette herself was being trafficked since she was 21 years old. She’d be 24 when she was convicted. Her pimp severely beat her and always found her whenever she ran away. Her pimp got only 10 years for trafficking the same minor Yvette was convicted for. He was never charged with robbery even though he participated in the same one Yvette did.

To be charged with sex-trafficking in Texas, someone only has to help in the scenario. This means securing hotel rooms at the order of a pimp can put someone at risk for being charged. What Yvette did was wrong, there’s no doubt about that and I have no issue with her being charged for helping.

The problem is that the man who consistently pimped her out received a lesser sentence. No one considered her mental state at the time or considered her a victim of the same man who may have been forcing her to help pimp out this new minor.

While on the surface these cases are very different, there’s a common thread connecting them. Key facts in both cases that may have weighed the result in each women’s favor were withheld from the court. In her original trial, Cyntoia’s lawyers were not able to disclose she suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, which can impair judgement. In Yvette’s case, the jury was not made aware of the extreme abuse she had faced by the hands of her pimp nor were they privy to his criminal record.

We need better laws to protect victims of sex trafficking. We need a legal system that will take into account their mental state, impact of abuse, and ages in which they became victims. We need a legal system that treats everyone, regardless of race or gender, equally.

Amidst all this heartbreak is a bit of hope- Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is reviewing Cyntoia’s case, along with others similar to hers, to possibly grant her a pardon.

Until this decision is made, we can all do our part by signing this petition to show that not only do we support Cyntoia but that we are fighting for her and other victims too.

Cover image courtesy of The Source


Davyn is a journalism student at Arizona State University. During her free...