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Lamar bill could cut sentences for child sex trafficking victims caught in violent acts

Inspired by the story of Cyntoia Brown, state Rep. London Lamar is hoping to give sex-trafficking victims who are minors an earlier chance at redemption if they’re involved in a violent act.

Lamar, a freshman Democrat from Memphis, is “very thankful” that Gov. Bill Haslam recently granted full clemency to Brown, who was convicted of killing 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allen at age 16 as a child prostitute and has spent nearly 15 years in prison. She was sentenced as an adult to 51 years in prison but is to be released in August instead, and will remain on parole for 10 years.

As the Legislature starts delving into bills, Lamar hopes Haslam’s decision on Brown translates into the 2019 session.

State Rep. London Lamar

“I think she really set the tone of how we can really move forward and work together and show grace and compassion as a state,” said Lamar, who joined other legislators in requesting a pardon before Haslam granted Brown’s release. “It is truly a moment that I felt like we can get it right, and I hope that same tone and grace carries over to this new legislative session and that other legislators show that same grace that Gov. Haslam did with Cyntoia.”

Under House Bill 17, which Lamar is sponsoring with state Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat, minors who commit violent acts while involved in sex trafficking would be sentenced as juveniles, not adults.

The bill would “establish a presumption that a minor who is the victim of a sexual offense or engaged in prostitution held a reasonable belief that the use of force is immediately necessary to avoid imminent death or serious bodily injury.”

Brown has said she killed Allen because she thought she was in danger after he picked her up at a Nashville Sonic and took her home, where she agreed to have sex for $150. According to reports, she shot him in the back of the head, and prosecutors argued she intended to kill and rob him.

Brown had been abandoned by her mother and grew up in state custody, living in foster homes and juvenile facilities, which she fled before getting involved with a man nicknamed “Kut Throat,” who reportedly beat her and threatened to kill her, pimping her out in Nashville. He since has been shot to death.

The case drew attention from celebrities nationwide, such as Kim Kardashian and Snoop Dogg, who called on Haslam to grant clemency.

Lamar decided to get involved because she has a background in advocating for “reproductive justice and women’s rights” and wanted to incorporate those into her new position as a state lawmaker.

“I felt the Cyntoia Brown case touched the hearts of many people in the country and in the state, including mine,” she said.

Memphis reports some of the highest instances of child sex trafficking in the state.

And too many children are victims of rape, molestation and child sex trafficking in Tennessee, Lamar said, noting she felt compelled to bring the legislation because of the way Brown began to change her life while in prison.

Brown earned an associate’s degree from Lipscomb University with a 4.0 GPA and is working toward a bachelor’s degree while mentoring other female inmates, according to reports.

In reading about Brown’s case, Lamar said she found Tennessee had made strides in reducing child sex trafficking in recent years.

The 2018 Protected Innocence Challenge report by Shared Hope International gave Tennessee an A grade and 96.5 score out of a possible 102.5 points, with its strongest ratings coming in categories of enforcement, prison time and fines. The report found the state came up short, though, in areas such as the pursuit of justice because of a lack of trial protection for victims and possible hurdles for victim compensation.

The state has changed several laws dealing with sex trafficking. For instance, children caught in sex trafficking and prostitution are no longer charged as adults for that activity.

“I said, well, what’s the difference between that and Cyntoia when Cyntoia committed an act of violence while doing sex trafficking?” Lamar said. “She’s really being looked at as a murderer, but she’s a victim” because she committed the violence while being a “victim of something harmful.”

Lamar contends Brown was forced into prostitution, something girls and women usually don’t do voluntarily, and had “nowhere to go.”

“I think we need to kind of take the responsibility off the victim and put it on the perpetrators, and those are people who are purchasing women for sex – and more than just women, purchasing minors,” Lamar said. “We have an obligation as a state and as humans to protect children because most times they don’t have the physical, mental, emotional capacity to protect themselves.”

Working with Lee

Gov.-elect Bill Lee, a Williamson County Republican, wants a full review of the state’s criminal justice system, including sentencing guidelines. Following Haslam’s decision to grant clemency, Lee said he hopes “serious consideration” of reform will continue, “especially with respect to sentencing juveniles.”

Haslam, a Knoxville Republican who exits office Saturday, Jan. 19, as Lee takes the oath of office as Tennessee’s 50th governor, said in an interview this week he doesn’t know how his decision on Brown will affect the public’s view of his time in office.

“Most people see it as the right thing to do. There’ll be some folks who’ll say, ‘Well, you’re soft on crime.’ But I think what we’ve tried to do in office, whether it’s a decision like that or something else, is to try to get to the right answer,” Haslam said. “It doesn’t mean we always have, but I hope we’ve always said, ‘Forget about the political implications or forget about what our opinion was when we started working on this.’ Hopefully, we’ve worked to get to the right answer. And in Cyntoia’s case, I honestly feel like we did that.”

As she ferries the legislation through the 111th General Assembly, Lamar said she hopes to work with the Lee administration.

“I’m so excited that Gov.-elect Bill Lee wants to make criminal justice a priority for him. I think we both can agree that we can make sure our criminal justice system is working on behalf of all people to help rehabilitate people and that we’re not unfairly incarcerating people,” she said.

Likewise, she wants to collaborate with rural lawmakers, because child sex trafficking is a statewide problem and hardly confined to urban areas.

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