Children should not grow up in prison — Congress must reform juvenile sentencing
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A few years ago, I was approached by a young lady named Sara Kruzan who wanted to share her experience as a child sex trafficking victim who was sentenced to life in prison. Her story triggered a three-year long, bipartisan push for juvenile sentencing reform that has the potential to save lives and show compassion for young people who have experienced unimaginable cruelty.

Sara’s story is heartbreaking. At 11 years old, a man she trusted began grooming her for a life of sexual slavery, and at 13, he forced her to work as a prostitute. After years of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse at the hands of this sex trafficker, Sara escaped, but returned to shoot and kill him. At only 17 years old, Sara was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In an interview 12 years later, dressed in a prison uniform, Sara said, “[w]hen I die, they’ll send me home.”

Unfortunately, Sara’s story is not as unique as you and I may hope. There are children just like her across America who have received harsh sentences for crimes committed against their sexual abusers. Rather than being met with compassion and healing, the criminal justice system has magnified their trauma.

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That is why I recently reintroduced H.R. 2858, the “Sara’s Law and the Unfair Sentencing Prevention Act,” with bipartisan support, to end this injustice and significantly reform the way juveniles are sentenced. Under current law, sexually abused children who commit violent crimes against their abusers often receive severe sentences, as Sara did. My bill mandates that minors who escape and later commit crimes against their abusers would become eligible for parole after 20 years. It would also give judges increased discretion to reduce sentencing up to 35 percent based on the accused’s age, circumstances, and chance for rehabilitation.

The United States is the only nation in the world that allows sexually abused children who commit criminal actions against their abusers to grow up in prison with no hope of parole or rehabilitation. While these kids must be held accountable for their crimes, it is immoral for us to ignore the life-changing abuse they suffered and refuse to acknowledge it as a mitigating circumstance. Sara’s story has a bittersweet ending. After 20 years in prison, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted and reduced her sentence and released her from prison. She now advocates for similarly situated children, showing all of us that rehabilitation and mercy are possible.

Politics is too often a disunifying pursuit. Thankfully, “Sara’s Law and the Unfair Sentencing Prevention Act,” is a chance for us to come together to do some good for America’s children. I am proud that this bill has bipartisan support, because I know that Republicans and Democrats can work together for a goal that is bigger than ourselves. I am incredibly grateful that Sara chose to share her story with me, and I look forward to seeing this bill become law.

Westerman represents the 4th District of Arkansas.