Carey Maul ’21
The name Cyntoia Brown has been the center of attention over the past few weeks on various social media platforms and news outlets after being granted executive clemency by Tennessee governor Bill Haslam. Brown, now 30, was convicted of first degree murder after killing a middle aged man who took her back to his home for sex when she was only 16. Cyntoia was a victim of sex trafficking who acted out of self defense, but was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. Her case was brought back into the public eye after celebrities such as Rihanna and Kim Kardashian shared her story on social media. This brief backstory alone is enough to highlight the obvious: Cyntoia’s conviction is a tragic result of the biased and wildly flawed criminal justice system in our country, a system that is particularly oppressive against people of color.
Brown’s clemency is certainly a step in the right direction for criminal justice reform, especially in a society that is so heavily and strictly divided that nearly all issues, political or not, are politicized. Justice reform, for example, is made political by being lumped into some sort of demonized leftist agenda, even though it is merely an issue of human decency. If this push for human compassion in its most basic form is a radical leftist agenda, then sign me up. Criminal justice reform in America is so obviously necessary, and yet Republican leaders remain unwilling to express urgency or even to acknowledge the systematic racism that allows convictions such as Cyntoia Brown’s to exist without question.
So, with leaders unwilling to speak out against the state of the criminal justice system out of fear of political backlash or perhaps out of ignorance of the root of the issue, how will it see improvement? What seems to be unfolding today is that speaking out against racism is seen as political. Speaking out against sexism is seen as political. Speaking out against homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia is seen as political. While these issues are more openly discussed by liberal Democrats than by conservative Republicans, to make a vast understatement, politicizing these issues only makes them harder to solve, and labeling them as political is just another means of contributing to them. Racism disguised as politics is just racism. Unwillingness to get behind criminal justice reform is just racism. So, while it seems that politicians are the people that will ultimately be able to make policy that paves the way to a solution to these enormous social issues, the issues themselves should be more than politics: they should be rooted in the logical notion that all people should be treated with equity and equality. Cyntoia Brown’s case will hopefully emphasize the need for criminal justice reform, and make obvious what already should have been clear to Americans, that the system thrives on racial prejudice and discrimination. Moving forward, it is our obligation as citizens to continue to fight for the rights of individuals such as Cyntoia, whose rights have been stripped at the hands of a flawed system.