Congress needs to pass Sara's Law so the next Sara Kruzan is met with empathy, fairness
© Greg Nash

When I was only 11 years old, I met a man who groomed me to be exploited and sold for sex. From 13 to 16 years old, I was a child sex trafficking victim. And after years of systematic, dehumanizing rape and torture, I finally escaped. A few days later, I returned and killed him.

When I went to trial, the pain and trauma I experienced as a child was not admitted into evidence. Without that evidence seeing the light of day, the prosecution, the judge, and the media depicted me as a sophisticated monster – a far too common response for girls of color in our country, especially when sex or a murder is involved.

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I was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus four years. I was stunned. It was hard to see the “justice” in a system that gave me the harshest sentence for killing my tormenter, who robbed me of my youth through years of degrading sexual abuse.

Since that time, I have devoted my life to making changes in the criminal justice system, with an unwavering concentration on justice for victims of sex trafficking who, like in my case, become involved in criminal circumstances themselves out of desperation.

After years of tireless work by my legal team and community advocates, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted and reduced my sentence. In 2013, I was paroled after 19 years and seven months. Now, survivor-led non-profit Human Rights for Kids and I are working to pass laws to make sure another child sex crime survivor never has to endure my sentence.

But there is a silver lining. There is justice in sight, after years of activism, advocacy and the telling of the most painful and personal stories. In Congress, Rep. Bruce WestermanBruce Eugene WestermanCongress needs to pass Sara's Law so the next Sara Kruzan is met with empathy, fairness The results are in: How the nation voted on criminal justice issues that impact our youth Overnight Energy: Trump to nominate Wheeler as EPA chief | House votes to remove protections for gray wolves | Lawmakers aim to pass disaster funds for California fires MORE (R-Ark.) introduced H.R 1950, known as Sara’s Law. The bill allows for federal judges to impose reduced sentencing for juvenile sex trafficking, abuse, and assault survivors who commit crimes against their abusers and urges the justice system to keep these children in the juvenile or child welfare system for services and care. Similar laws are pending in state legislatures across the country because, terribly, my case is not an anomaly.

There are too many young people, both boys and girls, both men and women, living in prison, frequently for decades-long sentences, for the same reason that sent me there. They are traumatized, instead of protected, by the criminal justice system.

Most recently, the country learned of the case of Cyntoia Brown, who killed the man who bought her for sex when she was just 16. She will have served 15 years in prison when she is released in August after Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted her clemency earlier this year.

I have been free for more than five years, but my heart continues to ache for the child victims who do not have the support from brave governors that Cyntoia and I had. The justice system is only interested in their act of violence, not what preceded it or the harm that their perpetrator caused.

It is a misguided form of judgement. 

What happened to me was wrong. When I was sentenced for ending a life that nearly took mine from me, act by act, over years, I felt silenced and invisible, as if my dignity and humanity were taken all over again, and my screams once again went unheard. I felt my voice held no value.

Sara’s Law gives voice and value back to the young people who need it most. These children are wounded every day. And every day, these wounds require courage, grace and an undefined strength for survivors to overcome. Let’s not allow the justice system to take anything else away from child trafficking and sexual abuse victims. They have been forced to give away too much already.

Let’s do better as a country. Congressional leaders must learn from our stories so that the next Cyntoia Brown or Sara Kruzan is met with empathy, compassion, understanding, and love. It’s something that I never knew, and that children like me have never known.

Kruzan was sentenced to life in prison after killing the man who groomed her for sex trafficking. She was released after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted and reduced her sentence. Kruzan is now an advocate for people who committed crimes like hers.