Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman who has been incarcerated since the age of 16, has been granted clemency after spending 15 years in prison for killing a man who had bought her for sex in 2004. Activists and human rights organizers rejoiced at the decision, having fought a long battle to free Brown, who was serving a life sentence and was tried as an adult despite being convicted as a minor, and one who had been sex trafficked; juvenile sentencing laws in Tennessee have since been amended. In a statement, Brown reacted to the news: “With God’s help,” Brown said, “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.”
Brown’s case has attracted attention from celebrities including Rihanna, Ashley Judd, Amy Schumer, and Kim Kardashian West (who last year advocated for the release of Alice Johnson, another woman serving life in prison) for the harsh sentence Brown received both as a teenager and as a victim of sex trafficking. Prosecutors said that Brown, now 30, shot Johnny Mitchell Allen in the head while he was sleeping, and stole money and guns from him; her defense argued that Brown was worried for her life. Brown’s case has helped spark a debate about reviewing life-without-parole sentences imposed on teens in Tennessee and about treating juvenile sex-trafficking victims as just that—victims.
Governor Bill Haslam, who commuted Brown’s sentence to parole during his last days in office, said in a statement: “This decision comes after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case. Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. 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.”