Sara Kruzan, Human Trafficking, and the Criminal Justice System

For most of her life, Sara Kruzan was sexually and physically abused.  When she was eleven years old, she met G.G., the man that would later become her pimp.  Two years later, she was gang-raped and trafficked by G.G. into the sex industry; she spent three years working as a prostitute.  At the age of sixteen, Sara Kruzan robbed, shot, and killed G.G. in a Riverside County motel room.  She was ultimately tried and convicted of “special circumstances” murder in the first degree; her sentence was life in prison without the possibility of parole.  For the past sixteen years, Sara has been an exemplary prisoner: she has received her associate’s degree, undergone several rehabilitation programs, and undergone a complete transformation.

In 2010, she asked California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant her clemency.  This case received national media attention and drew the support of countless activists.  Numerous petitions were drafted, urging the Governor to accept Kruzan’s request; approximately forty thousand members signed one such petition.  Other activists extended their support by making phone calls, writing letters, and even sending holiday cards to the Governor.

On January 2nd, 2011, Governor Schwarzenegger made his decision.  Although he did not release Kruzan from prison with time served, he commuted her sentence to twenty-five years in prison with the possibility of parole.  Here is an excerpt of what he had to say about the case:

“On March 10, 1994, 16-year-old Sara Kruzan shot and killed her former pimp, 37-year-old George Howard. In response to threats by James Earl Hampton, Ms. Kruzan went to a movie with Mr. Howard. After the movie, the pair went to a hotel. As they prepared to have sexual intercourse, she shot Mr. Howard to death. Ms. Kruzan was convicted of special circumstances first-degree murder (while lying in wait and during a robbery) with a firearm. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus four consecutive years for the use of a firearm. Ms. Kruzan appealed her conviction, but her sentence was upheld. Mr. Howard’s death is tragic, and I do not discount the gravity of the offense. But given Ms. Kruzan’s age at the time of the murder, and considering the significant abuse she suffered at his hands, I believe Ms. Kruzan’s sentence is excessive. Accordingly, I commute Ms. Kruzan’s murder sentence to 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.”

When Kruzan was convicted in 1994, there was a very limited understanding of the complex nature of human trafficking.  Victims of human trafficking were, and in many cases still are, treated as criminals.  For years, Kruzan was sexually abused, psychologically manipulated, and repeatedly traumatized.  Her childhood had been stripped away from her and she was forced to fight for her life.  Rather than considering the extenuating circumstances of Kruzan’s case, her actions were seen as criminal offenses.

Kruzan was also a minor at the time that she killed her pimp.  Sentencing a minor to life in prison without the possibility of parole ends a life that has not even had enough time to begin.  Elizabeth Calvin, a children’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch says:

“Teenagers are still developing.  No one – not a judge, a psychologist, or a doctor – can look at a sixteen year old and be sure how that young person will turn out as an adult.  It makes sense to re-examine these cases when the individual has grown up and becomes an adult. There’s no question that we can keep the public safe without locking youth up forever for crimes committed when they were still considered too young to have the judgment to vote or drive.”

Children’s rights advocates in California consider this case to be a victory and are hoping to make changes which can help juvenile offenders in the state of California.  Senator Leland Yee of San Francisco has recently reintroduced Senate Bill 9, which would allow courts to reconsider their decisions regarding cases where minors were sentenced to life without parole after they had served ten years in prison.

Although I am glad that Kruzan’s sentence was commuted, I was really hoping that she would be released from prison with time served.  She had undergone years of trauma and abuse; she should never have been sent to prison in the first place.  After killing Howards, Kruzan should have been sent to a rehabilitation program, such as California’s Children of the Night.  Since 1979, Children of the Night has been “assisting children between the ages of 11 and 17 who are forced to prostitute on the streets for food to eat and a place to sleep.”  Instead, the courts ordered her to spend the rest of her life behind bars.  Unfortunately, these types of scenarios are not a thing of the past.  Children in the sex trade and victims of human trafficking are often re-victimized by the criminal justice system.  They may be imprisoned, deported, or even sexually assaulted by law enforcement officials.  The system which is supposed to be fighting to ensure the safety and security of those living in the United States ultimately perpetuates this endless cycle of abuse and violence.

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