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|January 7, 2019

Polaris Statement on Cyntoia Brown Clemency

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Jan. 7, 2019)—Polaris, a leader in the global fight against human trafficking, issued the following statement hailing the announcement today by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam that he is commuting the life sentence of Cyntoia Brown. A survivor of sex trafficking when she was a minor, Brown was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing the man who bought her for sex at 16 years old while she was under the control of a violent pimp.

Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, said:

“We are thrilled to hear this news, and we applaud Governor Haslam’s decision to grant Cyntoia Brown justice and freedom by commuting her sentence. With this act, the Governor is not only giving one young woman a reason to hope and the chance at a better future. His actions also represent a powerful statement that we as a society must be better about how we respond to the crime of human trafficking and about how we treat those who have experienced it.

“We are profoundly grateful to Cyntoia’s legal team; to everyone who has spoken out to support Cyntoia; to the documentary films that spotlighted Cyntoia’s case; to the activists, community members, and trafficking survivors who have fought for this moment; and for the wisdom and discernment of Governor Haslam and his staff.

“Cyntoia’s initial life sentence when she was still a juvenile overlooked that she was a victim of human trafficking at the time. Her case in 2006 was a poignant example of the shortcomings of a nascent anti-human trafficking field. Multiple systems could have done better by Cyntoia had they more deeply understood human trafficking, complex trauma, and the compounding effects of different forms of victimization that she experienced throughout her life.  

“There is an urgent need for attention and systemic improvements regarding the continued criminalization of human trafficking survivors for crimes they committed while being trafficked. Polaris requests that every state review the cases of any trafficking survivors who are imprisoned for the crimes they committed or were forced to commit during their exploitation. Because it’s not just Cyntoia. These shortcomings in our systems have affected other survivors too, like Alexis Martin and Sara Kruzan. Sara received clemency from then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2011. Alexis is still waiting.

“Law enforcement needs additional support and training to better identify human trafficking victims and to understand how and when trafficking victims commit crimes under the duress of their traffickers’ control. Judges and other court officials can be better trained to understand the impact of complex, chronic trauma, how trauma influences behavior, and the barrier that trauma creates to victim self-identification. Federal and state vacatur laws, which allow survivors to vacate their criminal records and rebuild their lives, must be prioritized by more state legislatures across the country.

“It is our hope that Cyntoia’s case and Governor Haslam’s decision represents a bellwether for a shifting criminal justice approach to the crime of trafficking and how trafficking victims are treated within criminal justice systems. Although so much work is still needed, today is a day to celebrate and is an important marker of progress towards a more just, equitable, and fair world.”  

BACKGROUND: Victims of human trafficking are often arrested, detained, prosecuted, and convicted of crimes either without recognition of their status as a human trafficking victim or for crimes they were forced to commit by their traffickers during the time of their exploitation. Those convictions on people’s records can result in a lifetime of limited access to opportunities, such as jobs, loans, immigration visas, or educational programs. Vacating convictions statutes, which Polaris and the anti-trafficking field strongly advocate for in all states, enable survivors to file a motion with the court to have these convictions removed.

More information from Polaris about vacating convictions statutes can be found here. A report on the sexual abuse to prison pipeline from can be found here. A report on the high levels of victimization from the National Survivor Network can be accessed here.

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