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In the sordid and brutal world of human trafficking, two recent stories deserve a closer look and a deeper understanding. Both stories involve justice — one for a person just emerging from a long run behind bars and the other for a person who always seems just outside of the grasp of the law.

The first of these two stories comes to us from Tennessee, where Cyntoia Brown has recently been released from prison. Her case is more complicated than many human trafficking clemency stories but nonetheless instructive. At 16, she was in a desperate situation. She was being trafficked, sold for sex to men unconcerned about the damage they did to her. But she also had a gun, which she used to shoot one of those men in the back of the head. She committed murder and, even as a juvenile, was therefore sentenced to life in prison.

It's likely that is where she would still be today except for a dramatic change that is underway in our society. The definition of trafficking is to be under someone else's control. In many cases that means a trafficker uses coercion — be it drug dependency, emotional manipulation, the threat of physical violence or actual physical violence — to force a person into a world of shame, degradation and abuse.

The human psyche being the complex creation that it is, often the trafficking victims will insist, even to themselves, that they are making rational choices about their lives. The result is that the trafficker makes a killing, but the trafficking victim dies inside.

Recognizing the complex nature of this dynamic, in January outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam offered Brown clemency and she was released at 3:30 a.m. Aug. 7 — just a few days ago.

The governor didn't let her entirely off the hook. Her record was not wiped clean. She'll have to serve another 10 years on parole, so even a relatively small infraction can send her back to jail. She will also have to attend counseling sessions, keep a job or enroll in school, and perform at least 50 hours of community service. She will work with at-risk youth.

But after 16 hard years growing up and another 15 years of hard time, she will now have more freedom than she has ever had to build a positive life.

Juxtapose this story against that of Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier, who committed suicide in jail over the weekend while awaiting trial on charges stemming from allegations that he trafficked young girls. What becomes clear is that there is a real change underway. A decade ago, Epstein cut a deal with prosecutors to do a short stint in jail but otherwise go back to his life. We wish Epstein had lived to be tried again, so that true justice could be done. But it's important to remember, even now, that he was rearrested because his alleged victims were empowered and speaking out. And the investigation into his death, as well as those who enabled him, must now be the focus.

In a world where we pay more attention to the victims of human trafficking than we once did, one girl has been released from prison while an alleged perpetrator was brought into custody for crimes he once was able to largely skate away from. We hope investigators do not allow any of his accomplices off the hook now. But in any case, this is what progress looks like in the messy world of human trafficking. Brown has been held to account for her sins, but justice also recognizes that she too was a victim. At the same time, justice is more broadly working to catch up to the real masterminds of these crimes.

-- The Dallas Morning News

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