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16-Year Old Got Life Without Parole for Killing Her Abusive Pimp -- Should Teens Be Condemned to Die in Jail?

Two cases in the Supreme Court could alter the fates of over 2,500 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers.
 
 
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This article is the first in a two-part series about juveniles and harsh sentencing. Read Part Two here.

Sara Kruzan was 11 years old, a middle school student from Riverside, Calif., when she met a man -- he called himself GG -- who was almost three times her age. GG took her under his wing; he would buy her gifts, take her and her friends rollerskating. "He was like a father figure," she recalls.

Despite suffering severe bouts of depression as a child, until then, Kruzan was a good student, an "overachiever" in her words. But her mother was abusive and addicted to drugs; as for her father, she had only met him a couple of times. So, more and more, GG filled in.

"GG was there -- sometimes," she said. "He would talk to me and take me out and give me all these lavish gifts and do all these things for me …" Before long, he started talking to her about sex, giving her his expert advice on what men were really like and telling her that she didn't "need to give it up for free."

Unbeknownst to her, GG was grooming Kruzan to be a prostitute. When she was 13, he raped her. "He uses his manhood to hurt," Kruzan recalls, "Like, break you in. I guess."

Kruzan worked for GG as a prostitute for three years. The hours were 6 p.m. until 5:30 or 6 in the morning. She and "the other girls" would come back and hand over their earnings to him. "He was, like, married to all of us I guess," she says. " … Everything was his."

After years of prostitution and sexual abuse, when she was 16, Kruzan snapped: She killed GG, was arrested and convicted of first-degree murder. Despite attempts by her lawyer to have her sentenced as a juvenile, the judge described her crime as "well thought-out" and sentenced her to life without parole.

"My judge told me that I lacked moral scruples," she recalls, a term she did not know the meaning of.

But the meaning of her sentence was all too clear. Life without parole, she says, "means I'm gonna die here."

'These Children Were Literally Lost In Adult Prison'

A few years ago, Sara Kruzan's story grabbed the attention of California State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who introduced legislation to abolish the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for youth offenders. The bill was no get-out-of-jail pass; under his legislation, a juvenile who committed a felony before the age of 18 would serve a minimum of 25 years before being eligible to go before a parole board (also not a get-out-of-jail pass).

Yee is also a child psychologist. When it comes to judging the actions of teenagers versus those of adults, he argues, "the neuroscience is clear; brain maturation continues well through adolescence, and thus impulse control, planning and critical-thinking skills are still not yet fully developed."

Condemning teenagers to die in jail, then, means curtailing the lives of potentially productive members of society. "Children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation than adults," Yee said. Anyway, didn't California's prison system rename itself the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation?

In politics, however, punitive almost always wins out -- particularly in California, where "three strikes" laws have led to a prison crisis unparalleled anywhere else in the country. Yee's bill met intense political resistance and eventually died.

This past February, he introduced a new, watered-down bill that, instead of eliminating life without parole for juveniles would provide a review of a youth offender's sentence after 10 years.

 
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