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Cyntoia Brown's clemency must begin a #MeToo movement for unacknowledged sex trafficking survivors

Instead of arresting child trafficking victims, we need to legally treat them as traumatized children in need of services.
Image: Cyntoia Brown, a woman serving a life sentence for killing a man when she was a 16-year-old prostitute, enters her clemency hearing on May 23, 2018, at Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville, Tennessee.
Cyntoia Brown, a woman serving a life sentence for killing a man when she was a 16-year-old prostitute, enters her clemency hearing on May 23, 2018, at Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville, Tennessee.Lacy Atkins / AP

Monday was a monumental day for survivors of sex trafficking: Cyntoia Brown, a child sex trafficking survivor convicted of killing the man who bought her when she was 16 from her trafficker with the intent of raping her, has been granted clemency by outgoing Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. Her tragic history of abuse, neglect, and childhood trauma, coupled with a 51-year sentence, garnered national attention from celebrities, lawmakers and survivor-leaders.

The news of her upcoming freedom (she is set to be released in August) is cause for celebration by survivors, but there is more to be done if survivors of sex trafficking are to receive justice. Cyntoia Brown’s clemency can and should pave the way for a #MeToo movement for sex trafficking survivors. They all deserve to be believed; they all deserve justice.

Sex trafficking survivors continue to be arrested and incarcerated for crimes they were forced to commit in self-defense or at the hands of their traffickers — including many child victims arrested for prostitution and even for sex trafficking.

Due to what is known as “credibility bias,” many people in and out of law enforcement find it difficult to believe the word of a young girl of color, like Cyntoia Brown (with a history of juvenile detention, sexual abuse and running away from foster placements) about having been trafficked — and the racial stereotypes of girls of color as less innocent and more sexually mature than their white peers doesn't help. Brown's background, though, is sadly similar to that of most sex trafficking survivors in America.

Furthermore, in 2004 when she was arrested, there were no state laws prohibiting the arrest of children for charges like prostitution, even though, by definition, a child cannot consent to sex, let alone prostitution. According to court documents, Brown told another female inmate after her arrest she was “sick of being raped” and “forced to sell her body” by her trafficker who went by the name “Kut Throat.”

These same court documents also reveal that she was referred to as a “prostitute” throughout her trial, rather than a victim of sex trafficking, despite being a 16-year-old child who was being sold by a known violent pimp. The prosecutor in Cyntoia Brown’s case even actively erroneously asserted she was not a victim of trafficking; however, under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 1999, any minor under the age of 18 who is induced — in this case, forced by a violent pimp — to commit an act of commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking.

The refusal by law enforcement to see that Cyntoia Brown was a victim of sex trafficking played a decisive role in the jury's decision to give a 51-year sentence to a child.

But the history of child victims of sex trafficking being arrested as prostitutes or worse runs deep in the American criminal justice system. Last year, 280 children were arrested for prostitution.

And, some victims of trafficking are also convicted of sex trafficking others. In 2011, for instance, a 17-year-old sex trafficking victim, Tiffany Simpson, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after her sex trafficker, Yarnell Donald, forced her to lure a 13-year-old girl into sex trafficking. Simpson, however, had herself been trafficked since the age of 12. Another victim is Alexis Martin, convicted of murdering her pimp at the age 15, though she did not pull the trigger. She remains in jail where she’ll serve 21 years to life.

At Karana Rising -- a survivor-led non-profit serving survivors of human trafficking — our experience working with survivors suggests that 50 percent of survivors of sex trafficking were arrested prior to being identified as victims of trafficking. And our work further shows that the average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation is between 14 and 16 years old.

Thus, even many of the arrests of adult women on prostitution charges — in 2016, there were 38,306 arrests for prostitution nationwide — likely include many victims of trafficking, including child sex trafficking.

Nicole, a child sex trafficking survivor and advocate at Karana Rising, was one such woman. “We were forced to walk the streets, sell our bodies and risk rape every night," she told me. "We were left in hotels, sold online and treated like criminals. Setting Cyntoia Brown free is setting us all free.”

Yet, despite the growing data, children (and adult) victims of sex trafficking continue to be arrested, and, while it may end their immediate trauma, it does not fix their lives. Being arrested often means that survivors are unable to apply for jobs, public housing and even college. They are left without options and thus vulnerable to yet future exploitation.

"I was arrested for prostitution at 13 and sent to detention center after detention center," explained Ashley, another child sex trafficking survivor and advocate at Karana Rising. “I can barely get a job to feed my own children now. I still struggle."

"The legal system backed me into a corner that forces me to live day-by-day, worried for my future,” she added.

There are some solutions in the works. In 2009, just five years after Cyntoia Brown’s arrest, New York state was the first state to pass what is now known as “Safe Harbor” law which protects and offers immunity to minors found to be involved in any form of commercial sex (whether it includes a trafficker or not.) Now, 34 states have passed similar legislation, including Tennessee in 2014.

And, instead of arresting child victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, we need to legally treat them as traumatized children in need of services. In Washington D.C., a newly formed court program, HOPE Court, connects youth who have been commercially sexually exploited to a specialized court program and direct services. This reduces their chances for future exploitation by addressing their trauma and treating them as victims, not criminals.

Beyond that, in January 2017, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was introduced to the Senate; it would vacate the criminal records of human trafficking survivors and enable them to become legally whole. While the federal bill stalled in the last Congress, jurisdictions (including the District of Columbia) are passing state legislation to accomplish similar goals.

Still, the best solution remains a controversial one: The American criminal justice system (and society as a whole) must stop viewing sex workers as criminals if we want to ensure justice for survivors of sex trafficking. By treating all sex workers as criminals, we end up criminalizing sex trafficking victims, causing them to be arrested and criminally charged instead of getting the assistance and support they need.

Traffickers often tell their victims that if they try to escape, they will be arrested and, sadly, the traffickers are often right. We must thus stop the arrest of sex workers if we want to ensure that sex trafficking victims, including minors like Cyntoia Brown, are not arrested, too.

In her statement released yesterday, Cyntoia Brown reports that she aims to start her own nonprofit to support other young survivors after she is granted clemency. She deserves that chance; all survivors of sex trafficking victims do. Their #MeToo time is here.