Law & the Courts

It’s Great That Cyntoia Brown Was Freed — But It’s Time for Systemic Change

(File photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
We need to take a long hard look at the way we view criminal offenses -- particularly nonviolent drug crimes -- in this country.

Cyntoia Brown has been granted clemency after serving 15 years of her life sentence — but she never should have had to spend so much time behind bars in the first place.

As a condition of her release, Brown will remain on parole supervision and be required to follow state and federal laws, hold a job, and go to counseling sessions.

In case you aren’t familiar with Brown’s story, she was just 16 and an alleged sex-trafficking victim when she shot and killed a real-estate agent, Johnny Allen, who was intending to pay her for sex. According to Brown, she had been living with abusive man named “Kut Throat” after running away from her adoptive family, and had been engaging in sex work on the street at his urging. Before meeting up with Allen, Brown says that Kut Throat had hit her and demanded that she bring back some money.

When Allen brought Brown back to his home, Brown said that she was afraid of some of his behavior. For example, she alleges that Allen kept standing over her after she said she wanted to go to sleep, and that Allen had aggressively grabbed her by the genitals. When he eventually reached for something under the bed, Brown said she believed he was reaching for a gun and shot him with her own. She then left, taking two of Allen’s guns and his money — which prosecutors claimed proves that she had gone to his house with the intention to rob him. Her defense, however, argued that Brown had suffered brain damage due to her mother drinking while Brown was in the womb, which gave her the decision-making capacity of a ten-year-old.

Make no mistake: Brown’s life at the time that this incident occurred was a difficult one. While she was in prison, however, she worked hard to turn things around. She earned a GED and an associate degree with a 4.0 GPA, as well as a bachelor’s degree. She also mentored other women in her prison. Clearly, Cyntoia Brown today is not the same Cyntoia Brown who was arrested all those years ago, and it is absolutely wonderful and just that she has been freed.

The thing is, though, Brown should have never had to spend so much time behind bars in the first place. Anyone can see that Brown was not so much a danger or threat to society as she was a lost soul, a child, just looking for some help and direction. All too often, though, our legal system tends to focus on punishing people rather than rehabilitating them — and that’s wrong, wrong, wrong.

Brown, of course, was lucky enough to be released because her case had garnered so much public attention and support. Many other women have not been so lucky. According to the ACLU, women “are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population,” despite the fact that only 36 percent of arrested women were arrested for violent crimes, and the fact that women make up only 8 percent of convicted violent felons. Draconian drug laws, unfortunately, are what have placed many of them behind bars — and it costs the U.S. taxpayer $25,000 per year to keep them there, plus an additional $25,000 per year for each of their children. It’s true: In addition to incarceration for nonviolent drug crimes, in my view, flying in the face of our values as a “free country,” it’s also a hell of a waste of taxpayer money.

What’s more, many of these women are, like Brown, just people who really need some help. In fact, according to the ACLU, “79% of women in federal and state prisons reported physical abuse and over 60% reported past sexual abuse.” In other words, the vast majority of them have been victims — just like Brown was. The ACLU also reports that almost 23 percent of female prisoners in this country have a mental illness.

It is great that Brown has been freed, but unfortunately, we are still pretty clearly dealing with a larger, more systemic issue. The bottom line is, we need to take a long hard look at the way we view criminal offenses — particularly nonviolent drug crimes — in this country. The current system disproportionately punishes women of color, as well as trauma survivors. What’s more, it’s often putting people behind bars, away from their families, who are really no threat to society. We have tried the punitive approach; and it’s proven to be both expensive and unjust — and we’d be better served by trying a more humanitarian one instead.

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