The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I was jailed for my trafficker’s death. I’m free now — but other women languish.

Chrystul Kizer during a hearing at the Kenosha County, Wis., courthouse on Nov. 15. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Cyntoia Brown-Long is an author, speaker and advocate for criminal-justice reform and victims of trafficking.

In August 2006, a Tennessee prosecutor convinced a jury that I was guilty of murdering a man who had trafficked me for sex. I was told to expect a sentence of 60 years. I received a life sentence. I was 16 years old.

Last week, Chrystul Kizer, charged with first-degree intentional homicide and arson in the death of a 33-year-old man who had sexually abused her multiple times, was told by a Wisconsin judge that she faces life in prison. She was 17 when she is alleged to have shot him.

The more things change.

I take responsibility for the life I took in a moment of fear and desperation. But if my trial had been held today, my defense likely would have included a discussion of domestic-minor sex trafficking and the diminished culpability of girls who are caught up in it. Since 2006, there has been new understanding of the complex trauma that sex trafficking inflicts on its young victims. Children who are bought and sold for sex are not prostitutes, they are trafficking victims. Because of the new awareness brought to my case by advocates, then-Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) granted me clemency in January, scheduling me for release after 15 years served.

I was freed in August, but that can’t be the end of this story. It has always been my hope that my case would show people there is a need to change things for other young women in similar circumstances. A 2016 Vera Institute report showed that 86 percent of all women in jail report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, 77 percent report partner violence, and 60 percent report caregiver violence. I, too, was assaulted by a man who told me that I needed to prostitute myself to survive. I know my situation was far from unique.

But it is now painfully clear to me that my clemency has not translated into larger-scale change. As I spend my first holiday season at home since my release, many women languish in prison cells as a result of the same laws and practices that affected me.

There can be great power in putting a name and a face to injustice. When we hear a person’s story, it becomes that much easier for us to put ourselves in their shoes, to empathize — and to mobilize. But how we respond determines whether the faces we see can serve as representation for the ones we don’t. For every name we know — for every #freecyntoiabrown campaign — there are countless others who will never be heard. Unless we work to change the laws behind the injustices, identical injustices will follow.

We know about the 14-year-old trafficking victim, identified in HuffPost by her nickname “Lici,” serving 20 years in Texas. We know about Alexis Martin, a 15-year-old serving 21 years to life in Ohio for playing a role in the killing of her trafficker. Now, thanks to reporting by The Post’s Jessica Contrera, Kizer is in our timelines. But how many others are out there? And how do we advocate in a way that reaches beyond the few to the many?

For every injustice we see in the criminal-justice system, there is a law, practice or policy that allowed it to happen. That is where the change must happen. In Kizer’s case, a loophole in the law allowed a judge to deny her the ability to use an “affirmative defense” — the option to argue that she should be acquitted because the crime occurred as a result of her being trafficked. Now, unless her appeal is successful, a law specifically designed to protect victims of sex trafficking simply would not apply to Kizer. It is only when we bring the cracks in the system to light that we can effectively lobby to close them. It is only in closing these cracks that we can ensure justice for all.

A year ago, I was sitting in a prison cell, praying that the world would redefine what justice looks like for people like me. Chrystul, and all trafficking survivors, deserve the kind of justice that boldly acknowledges: “Your life matters, too.”

The scholar Cornel West encourages us to “be a voice, not an echo.” To be a voice in the face of injustice requires more than shouting into a bullhorn. It is our responsibility to become stewards of a system that exists to serve, and not to subject. That responsibility involves looking past the emotions, digging into the details and committing ourselves to advocating for change that affects everyone — not just the names we know. And the only way to ensure our voices are not mere echoes on a timeline is to pursue substantive changes to the laws, practices and policies that govern our justice system.

An injustice to one is a threat to us all. #FreeEveryCyntoia

Read more:

Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein: Human trafficking isn’t just morally repugnant. It’s also a security threat.

The Post’s View: The Trump administration’s crocodile tears on human trafficking

Ivanka Trump: The Trump administration is taking bold action to combat the evil of human trafficking

Bjorn Lomborg and Michelle A. Williams: The cost of domestic violence is astonishing

The Post’s View: We need to face this harrowing statistic on gun violence