Rep. Bruce Westerman and Sara Kruzan: Sex trafficking victims deserve justice, not harsh prison sentences

“When I was 17 years old, I was sentenced to die in prison for killing the man who had been sexually trafficking and sexually imposing violence upon me for more than five years. I was only 11 years old when the man who exploited me began to groom me for the underage selling of a child within the dark shadows of our communities.

“Yet, during my trial, the abuse and complex trauma I experienced throughout my childhood was not admitted into evidence. I was not allowed to speak of it.

“The ‘justice’ system sentenced me — a child sex trafficking and rape survivor — to life in prison without parole, plus four years, for killing the man who stole my childhood and victimized me for nearly a third of my young life.”

These words from Sara Kruzan highlight a complete dereliction of justice in the U.S. criminal system. Unfortunately, it’s not an isolated story. Other girls like Cyntoia Brown and Alexis Martin have faced similar sentences, as they were jailed for actions they took against their rapists and traffickers.

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The justice system must not silence victims in this way, which is why we have fought for a trio of juvenile sentencing reform bills that would address these very issues.

To silence and delegitimize children and teenagers who have been sexually abused or been caught up in bad decisions is to condemn them to a life without hope.

H.R. 1950, dubbed “Sara’s Law,” would increase the discretion of federal judges sentencing juveniles for crimes associated with sex trafficking, sexual abuse or sexual assault. It also provides that juveniles found guilty of crimes against persons who sexually abused or assaulted them will not be required to serve the mandatory minimum sentence otherwise associated with the crime. Put simply, this bill recognizes that girls and boys trapped in sexually abusive situations may out of necessity resort to violent means to escape. It’s high time we provided an avenue for them to receive justice and space to heal within the legal system.

The other two bills, H.R. 1949 and H.R. 1951 prohibit federal judges from sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole, and direct federal judges to consider “the diminished capability of juveniles compared to that of adults” when sentencing those who committed crimes as juveniles.

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals,” Aristotle famously said. “Separated from law and justice he is the worst.” When we throw young people into the criminal justice machine with poor legal representation and even poorer legislation to back them, we are separating them from the very justice and order upon which our country was founded.

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It’s easy to get lost in the numbers, to view the juvenile justice system as a jumble of facts and statistics that don’t really have any bearing on everyday life. But we need to put ourselves in their shoes. To silence and delegitimize children and teenagers who have been sexually abused or been caught up in bad decisions is to condemn them to a life without hope. Our justice system should be reforming and correcting these young people, not locking them up and throwing away the key.

That’s why these bills matter to you, to us, and to every American. Our young people deserve more from the justice system than they currently receive. We aim to break that cycle.

Sara Kruzan is a survivor of child-sex trafficking who was sentenced as a teenager to life imprisonment for killing her trafficker in 1994. Through national advocacy efforts, Sara was later released on parole after serving 19 years. Today, she is an activist and author, speaking out on behalf of juvenile sentencing reforms across the country.