Sara Kruzan was in her cell when she received a fax that changed her life. After spending some of her teenage years, all of her 20s and much of her 30s in prison for killing her trafficker, Kruzan learned that California’s attorney general had acknowledged that she was a victim of domestic violence. That was 2012. A year later, she was released from prison.
But the same year that Kruzan received that fax, another California teenager was about to follow her same path. Keiana Aldrich was headed to prison after taking a plea deal in Sacramento County for kidnapping and robbing a man who tried to hire her for pornography even though she was a minor. The man didn’t spend a day behind bars, but Aldrich, 17, was prosecuted as an adult and served eight years in prison.
“I still feel like I’m 16,” said Aldrich, now 25, her voice cracking, a few weeks after being released from prison last November. “Everything’s not the same anymore. It’s all different. I’m learning how to drive…I’m learning how to be an adult now.”
More than a decade in age separates Aldrich and Kruzan, but their stories are similar: They both were Black girls abused as children and cycled from one failed system to the next. Schools didn’t protect them. Juvenile detention centers didn’t help them. And courts threw them in prison for violent crimes against their abusers.
California has evolved in how it treats underage and adult victims of sex trafficking. But women are still sitting behind bars for violent crimes they committed while being trafficked.
“California still doesn’t have a clear statutory off-ramp for survivors that are incarcerated whose original prosecution and sentencing didn’t take into account that they were trafficking survivors,” said Aldrich’s attorney, Maggy Krell.
In 2017, police in California stopped arresting minors for prostitution under a new “no such thing as a child prostitute” law. That same year, the state also created an avenue for some adults and minors to have their convictions vacated if they committed nonviolent crimes as a result of being trafficked. In 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law allowing district attorneys to call for resentencing for any crime.
No one knows how many people have been left in California’s prisons as the policies related to arresting and prosecuting trafficking victims have changed. The data have never been collected. But advocates and attorneys say they have encountered many.
While there are avenues for some people to be released, advocates say that the state should do more to specifically address trafficking victims.
“The clearest policy changes that California could make today would be one, create an off-ramp for survivors who are currently incarcerated,” Krell said. “And then, two, to prohibit the practice of prosecuting children as adults when those children are victims themselves.”
Right now, the path toward release is petitioning the court for resentencing.
But the resentencing process often requires a savvy attorney, a willing district attorney and an agreement from the judge.
It’s how Keiana Aldrich was released.
Aldrich’s attorney petitioned the court last year for resentencing, saying that her prosecution and sentence “failed to fully consider her status as a sex trafficking victim” and her history of “chronic and severe abuse.” The district attorney concurred, and a month later, Aldrich was headed home.
“I’m thrilled that I’m out, but I want people to have a pathway to getting out, too,” Aldrich said.
While incarcerated, she met many people with stories like hers, but they lack one critical piece to being released. “They don’t have lawyers,” she said.
Although the laws that created a pathway for Aldrich’s release can be used by others who’ve committed violent crimes, there are barriers: Sometimes the prisoners don’t even understand that they’re victims.
“One of the things that we have not really mastered yet is how do we … provide that kind of mental health treatment so people can start to see their victimization and then understand that they have the right to challenge a conviction,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.
O’Malley has built her career on creating a blueprint for how police and prosecutors should fight against human trafficking, launching the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit in 2006.
Prosecutors have always had discretion in how they charge cases, and they still do. The difference now: More prosecutors are able to spot human trafficking victims; there are special courts in California for juveniles who have a history of trauma or exploitation, and prosecutors receive training.
For violent crimes like the ones that Kruzan and Aldrich committed, prosecutors today are usually more lenient — charging them as minors rather than adults, or sending them to juvenile halls rather than prisons. Or in some cases, not charging them with crimes.
“We had a case of a woman charged with carjacking and kidnapping,” O’Malley said. “The original story was she carjacked the guy’s car. But on a deeper dive, we could say, no. She was a victim of human trafficking.”
O’Malley’s office dropped the charges and escorted the victim back to her family in Seattle so she could recover.
“California has been ahead of the game on this conversation for a long time,” said Maheen Kaleem, a human rights attorney and co-author of a national report called The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline.
“Usually when it comes to sex trafficking, it was either a conversation about victims or it was a conversation about perpetrators. And when you have victims who are charged with being perpetrators of other crimes, it starts to get confusing,” she said.
In 2015, the Human Trafficking Hotline recorded 817 sex trafficking cases in California. By 2019, California cases rose to 1,118. Minors were involved in 21% of all reported trafficking cases, which includes forced labor cases as well as sexual exploitation.
The victims are overwhelmingly Black women and girls. Just one year before California law banned the arrest of minors for prostitution, Black girls represented more than 70% of juveniles referred to juvenile court or probation for prostitution, according to Juvenile Court and Probation Statistical data from the Justice Department.
Citations for minors who are sex trafficked have cratered since the “no such thing as a child prostitute” law passed in 2016. In the three years since then, 49 children under the age of 18 have still been cited (although not arrested) for prostitution, compared to 282 in 2012 alone, according to Justice Department statistics.
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