Some of the worst government-sanctioned human rights abuses committed against children are happening right here in the United States. Earlier this year, a child sex crime survivor in Ohio had her life sentence commuted by Gov. Mike DeWine. At the age of 15, Alexis was sentenced to life in prison for participating in a robbery where the man who had been raping and sex trafficking her was killed.
As a result of mandatory sentencing schemes that fail to consider childhood trauma, children like Alexis receive the exact same punishment as adults without regard for their victim or child status.
For those who remain puzzled about why the justice system doesn’t give these children the benefit of self-defense laws, you are not alone. Many self-defense laws don’t protect child sex crime victims who commit acts of violence against their abusers. The people who prosecuted Alexis, or the person who prosecuted me for that matter, argue that because we planned to participate in an act of violence against our sex traffickers, we did not qualify for the legal protections afforded to those who “act in self-defense.”
It is curious though why a prosecutor would want to seek a life sentence for child sex trafficking victims who kill their rapists or traffickers, given what we know about traumatic bonding and the invisible chains that keep us bound in modern-day slavery. Yet, there has been little outrage for the too many child sex trafficking victims who are sitting in prison cells or awaiting prosecution for crimes committed against their rapists and traffickers.
I was one of those children. I was in elementary school and only 11 years old when I met the man who robbed me of my childhood. Coming from a home and community where drugs and abuse were the norm, I was an easy target for a man with sinister intentions. From the time I was 13 years old until I was 16, I was a child sex trafficking victim who endured horrific abuse, rape and torture at the hands of my trafficker. I was eventually able to break free from the manipulative hold he had over me and returned shortly after that and killed him.
Girls, boys given life sentences
Despite being his victim of trafficking, sex abuse and rape, I was tried as an adult where none of the abuse and complex trauma I experienced throughout my childhood was admitted into evidence. The prosecution, the judge and the media depicted me as a sophisticated monster, the worst of the worst and sentenced me as such. The “justice” system sentenced me — a child sex trafficking and rape survivor — to life imprisonment without parole, plus four years, for killing the man who victimized me for nearly a third of my young life.
Years later, thanks to the tireless work of my legal team and community advocates, my sentence was commuted and reduced by then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. On Oct. 31, 2013, I was paroled from Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla after serving 19 years and seven months.
Despite having been free for nearly seven years now, my heart continues to ache at the injustice of locking up child victims of sex trafficking and sexual abuse who commit crimes against those who have abused and exploited them. What happened to me was not justice. What has happened to other child sex trafficking victims like Alexis, and Cyntoia Brown, who also received a life sentence for killing her would-be rapist, is not justice. None of us should have been sent to prison in the first place — a far too common response for girls of color in our country — especially for actions taken against our abusers.
Imagine if we were your own daughter; how might you respond to the vile men who exploited and abused us? Is it so difficult to understand then how a 16-year-old girl, who was raped and abused and trafficked from the time she left elementary school, would end up killing the man who harmed her so? What should we do with her? Our answer to this question says a lot more about us than it does about her.
Across the country there are girls and boys who have been sexually abused, raped and trafficked who are now facing prosecution or sitting in a prison cell for crimes committed against their abusers. There are charges pending against teenage girls in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who are in situations just like ours. There are women in Louisiana serving lengthy prison sentences for having killed their rapists and abusers when they were children. There is a woman awaiting resentencing on a life sentence in New York who killed her sex trafficker as a child.
These child victims should never have been given life sentences, let alone prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. One thing that can be done to change the way these children are treated is for states to adopt Sara’s Law. It is an initiative I have been working on with the nonprofit organization Human Rights for Kids (HRFK) to create more trauma-informed and age-appropriate outcomes for children in the justice system.
Under Sara’s Law, when a child sex crime victim commits an act of violence against their abuser, the judge is empowered to depart from any mandatory minimum sentence or send the child back to the jurisdiction of the juvenile or family court for services. Republican Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman has introduced a version of Sara’s Law in Congress, and nearly half a dozen states across the country have followed suit.
Earlier this year, Democratic Virginia state Delegate Vivian Watts successfully championed HB 744, which requires judges to consider early childhood trauma anytime a child is sentenced in adult court and allows judges to depart from mandatory minimums for children. States across the country should follow the bipartisan leadership of Bruce Westerman and Vivian Watts to make sure that no more child sex abuse, rape and trafficking victims are given lengthy sentences in adult prisons. We’ve suffered enough trauma already.
Sara Kruzan works with Human Rights for Kids as an advocate for child sex crime victims in the U.S. justice system. She is also the namesake of Sara’s Law, which she established to protect abused and exploited children from serving inhumane prison sentences when they commit acts of violence against their abusers.