AB 124 – Justice for Survivors: Breaking the Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

Content Warning – the post contains descriptions of sexual abuse and physical violence. 

Keiana Aldrich was sexually abused by her father while living with her teenage mother in Northern California when she was just five years old. At 14, she was sexually exploited while living on the streets in Sacramento. Two years later, she was arrested on prostitution charges, and she testified against her pimp hoping that she would receive counseling and housing in return. Aldrich did not receive either. 

At 17, she lived with a gang-affiliated family that sexually exploited her. Aldrich’s female pimp attempted to sell her to two men for sex, and, once Aldrich and the pimp met the two men, the latter pointed a gun at one of them and forced him into a car with Aldrich’s assistance. The two girls then allegedly forced the man to purchase items for them and give them money. Neither of the men was charged with soliciting sex from a minor, but Aldrich was charged with robbery and kidnapping as an adult and accepted a plea bargain for 10 years behind bars. Aldrich spent almost a decade in prison, where she was sexually coerced and molested by three correctional staff members and one guard. In the face of this abuse, her mental health suffered and she survivied multiple suicide attempts.  Thanks to the work of her advocates and family, Aldrich was eventually released early in November of 2020, after spending nearly a decade in prison (source).

Aldrich’s story is not an anomaly. Sara Kruzan was also punished for a lifetime of abuse. Kruzan grew up with a single mother who abused her and suffered from drug addiction. At the age of 11, she met 31-year-old George Howard, who began grooming her for prostitution. According to Kruzan, Howard acted as a “father figure” to her, taking her out with her friends and offering her gifts. When Kruzan was 13, Howard raped her and forced her to work for him as a prostitute on the streets, subjecting her to years of violence and abuse. With no way out, Kruzan shot and killed Howard when she was 16 years old.  She was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison without parole plus four years. Kruzan was not able to share her side of the story until she filmed a video with the Human Rights Watch in 2009 appealing for clemency. 

After years of litigation, Kruzan was finally released from prison in 2013. She now dedicates her life to helping people facing similar circumstances to hers, working with survivors and pushing for legislation to safeguard them in the criminal justice system (source). 

These stories reveal the clear criminalization of abuse survivors in American courts. Nearly 60% of female state prisoners nationwide and as many as 94% of certain female prison populations are survivors of physical or sexual abuse (source). More specifically, 92% of all women in California prisons have been “battered and abused” in their lifetimes (source). This data reveals a clear “abuse-to-prison pipeline,” referred to as such by Senator Sydney Kamlager (source). This process especially impacts young Black girls as their societal adultification and sexualization prevents courts from viewing them as victims in need of assistance but, rather, as criminals deserving of punishment. In fact, the year before the state of California stopped the arrest of minors on prostitution charges, Black girls made up more than 70% of juveniles referred to court or probation for prostitution (source). Furthermore, Black women make up 25% of the incarcerated population in California, yet are only 5% of the adult population (source). For many survivors like Aldrich, sexual abuse continues in prison. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 80,000 men and women are sexually abused in American correctional facilities every year – a statistic that is likely subject to underreporting (source). For instance, the Department of Justice released a report on sexual abuse in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility – a women’s prison in New Jersey – “that concluded that the risk of sexual harm was so high that it reached constitutional proportions and violated inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment” (source).

California currently lacks the legal framework to appropriately account for the experiences of survivors entering the criminal justice system, thereby fueling the abuse-to-prison-(to-more-abuse) pipeline (source). Although courts are presently required to consider the experiences of violence survivors, they often fail to do so. Instead, as Aldrich and Kruzan’s stories exemplify, survivors are often heavily punished and abused by the very system that is charged with ensuring their safety. Courts’ disregard for the experiences of survivors is in part due to the fact that current protections only include human trafficking survivors, which leads law enforcement to overlook the abuse of individuals who experienced other forms of violence. Further, these limited protections deter survivors of other kinds of abuse from identifying themselves as such and considering the impact that their experiences had on their actions.

Championed by our Solis Policy Institute Trauma and Preventions Services team, Assembly Bill 124, attempts to prevent the criminalization of survivors in California courts by addressing blind spots in the state’s legislation. The bill was introduced by Senator Kamlager and co-authored by Assemblymember Bauer-Kahan, Assemblymember Burke, Assemblymember Garcia, Assemblymember Quirk, Assemblymember L. Rivas, and Assemblymember Wicks. AB 124 would extend the affirmative defense statute that currently only applies to human trafficking survivors to survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual violence as well as to survivors charged with violent offenses. 

The bill considers four kinds of mitigating factors that impact survivors: 

  1. history of trauma (physical, psychological, and childhood trauma), 
  2. age (whether the defendant is 25 or younger presently or at the time of the offense), 
  3. victimization (human trafficking, intimate partner violence, or sexual violence), and 
  4. whether the defendant has nexus to the offense.

AB 124 would require that law enforcement consider these factors at all stages of the criminal justice process. For instance, it would require prosecutors to consider the impact of these factors on a defendant’s offense during plea negotiations. Judges would need to sentence survivors beginning at the lower term when the aforementioned mitigating factors contributed to their committed offense unless the aggravating factors of the offense outweigh these mitigating factors. According to current legislation, sentencing can begin at all three terms (low, middle, and high term), but, unless AB 124 passes, courts will soon need to begin sentencing at the middle term and choose whether to assign lower or higher sentences. Sentencing judges should consider these factors when deciding on sentence enhancements. Further, judges would be required to consider these factors when considering survivors’ petitions for re-sentencing. Finally, AB 124 would allow survivors to petition to have their convictions vacated and their arrests expunged for any crimes directly related to sex trafficking, intimate partner violence, or sexual violence (source).

This bill is an important step to dismantling the abuse-to-prison pipeline. Had AB 124 been in place when Aldrich and Kruzan were arrested, they may not have served such harsh sentences for crimes that clearly resulted from a lifetime of abuse. The same is true for April Grayson, Adrianna Griffith, and countless other Black and brown survivors. For this reason, AB 124 has the support of over 90 organizations across California, spanning from anti-violence organizations to victim rights groups and the California Women’s Caucus. Further, the bill is sponsored by nine organizations, including Women’s Foundation California Solís Policy Institute!

Despite its importance and widespread support, AB 124 faces opposition from the California District Attorneys Association and some law enforcement groups. The bill needs your help to pass in the senate!

  • If you have two minutes, call the Senate Appropriations Chair, Anthony Portanino, at (916) 651-4025 and urge him to support Justice for Survivors by passing AB 124 out of the Appropriations Committee!
  • Support AB 124 on social media.

You can also support the organizations sponsoring the bill: the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), Black Futures Lab Public Policy Institute, the California Coalition of Women Prisoners (CCWP), Free to Thrive, the Human Rights Watch, Survived and Punished, the USC School of Law Post Conviction Clinic, Women’s Foundation of California Solís Policy Institute, and the Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC) (source)!

As intersectional feminists, we urge you to join us in dismantling the clear link between the patriarchy, white supremacy, and the criminal justice system. Together, we can mobilize to end the abuse-to-prison pipeline today!

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