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Expungement Helps Sex Trafficking Victims Reclaim Their Lives

June 03, 2020 by G. W. Schulz

For many, hope for a new life begins with expungement.

It took hardly the blink of an eye for 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown to pull the trigger of a handgun her pimp had given her and end the life of a 43-year-old man she said paid $150 to have sex with her. Tennessee Prosecutors said she ruthlessly robbed and murdered the man. She was sentenced to life in prison.

Over time, however, a different story began to unravel. A chorus of celebrities and politicians argued that Brown was a victim and not a criminal perpetrator. Other women said the man had attempted to attack them, corroborating Brown’s account. Under the weight of massive media attention, the governor of Tennessee commuted her sentence to 15 years. She was released last summer.

Since her release, she has become a prominent advocate for trafficking victims.

“You meet these young girls who are in these situations, and they don’t view themselves as being pimped,” she told NBC News in October. “They don’t view their trafficker as their trafficker. They think, ‘This is my boyfriend.’ And that’s exactly what I thought.”

Unfortunately, by the time they are able to escape, many trafficking victims have long criminal records as a result of their victimization.

“The nature of the crime of trafficking is such that survivors can be forced to commit a wide range of offenses, such as trespassing, selling or purchasing drugs, or even violence,” wrote the nonprofit Polaris Project in a report last year. “ …Survivors are frequently arrested for theft offenses when their traffickers specifically compel them to steal or when they do so in order to meet imposed quotas. Young victims are often used as bait for violent robberies.”

A criminal record can be like quicksand for those trying to reclaim their lives. Victims face an endless array of restrictions and outright prohibitions on voting, obtaining college and small-business loans, and finding employment.

Recognizing this as the affront to justice that it so clearly is, many States have sought to make it easier for trafficking victims (and other ex-convicts) to expunge past criminal transgressions. Oklahoma passed such a law in 2013, just as the state was beginning a series of criminal justice reforms intended to reduce the Sooner State’s historically high rate of current and former felons.

Under Tennessee law, Cyntoia Brown’s conviction will stay on her record for life. She continues to advocate for others and win the support of policymakers with the power to make meaningful change. Said Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam at Brown’s commutation hearing, “Transformation should be accompanied by hope.” For many, that hope begins with expungement.

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