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Fighting Extreme Sentencing for Child Offenders

A chance to earn parole for California’s Sara Kruzan

During his last day in office, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted the prison sentence of one of the state’s most egregiously sentenced victims of child sex trafficking. Sara Kruzan, sentenced to life in prison without parole at the age of 16, will now have the opportunity to present her case before a parole board.

Human Rights Watch was the first to bring Sara’s case to light in a short video we produced while documenting the sentencing of youth offenders to life without parole. Sara’s is one result of the campaign that we and our coalition partners are leading to end the plight of youth serving extreme sentences.

When Sara was 11 years old, she met a 31-year-old man who began grooming her for a life of prostitution. When she was 13, he sexually assaulted her. That same year, he put her to work on the street as a prostitute. At age 16, Sara killed him and was later sentenced to life without parole plus four years.

When Sara was convicted, she became one of over 2,500 child offenders in the United States sentenced to die in prison. Not a single person who committed a crime as a juvenile is serving this sentence anywhere else in the world.

Since 2005, Human Rights Watch has documented the sentencing of child offenders to life without parole in the United States. Our groundbreaking report, "The Rest of Their Lives," co-released with Amnesty International, was the first to frame this issue as one of human rights. The report and follow-up advocacy helped launch a movement to abolish extreme sentences for youth.

In California, Human Rights Watch now leads a statewide coalition of groups and individuals dedicated to eliminating the sentence of life without parole for youth. The coalition includes juvenile justice experts, victims, youth, former prosecutors, faith groups, and international human rights law specialists working to end the juvenile life without parole sentence in California. Beyond this, we are working with a growing network of more than 75 California organizations and several thousand individuals who are also working to provide a second chance for hundreds of youth currently sentenced to life in prison. 

We produced and released the video about Sara’s story as follow-up to our report, “When I Die, They Will Send Me Home.” The video went viral, prompting an overwhelming response from the media and general public. It has been viewed over 300,000 times on YouTube and was picked up on several other websites. Dozens of people have since recorded their own video responses in support of Sara’s case. Attorneys took on Sara’s case pro bono, and with the legal team’s hard work and the efforts of many people who rallied to speak out against the crime of Sara’s sentence, Governor Schwarzenegger decided to commute Sara’s sentence to 25 years to life—which means that this young woman, exploited and abused as a child, will be given the chance to earn her freedom.

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