OP-ED: Justice for Sara

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John Lash

Have you heard Sara’s story? She was raised by an abusive, drug addicted mother. Her father was almost entirely absent from their lives. Sara, an 11-year-old middle school student in Riverside, Calif., met a man in his thirties who began to take a fatherly interest in her. He would take her and her friends skating, buy her gifts, offer her advice, and over a few years become a father figure. Things were looking up. Then, when she was 13, he raped her.

The man, known as GG, was a pimp, and all of his interest was aimed at grooming Sara for prostitution. For the next few years Sara, along with several other girls, was a victim of child sexual slavery. She would work as a prostitute all night, then in the morning turn her money over to GG. When she was 16, Sara “snapped” and killed GG.

Despite the mitigating circumstances of her case, and even though the California juvenile justice authorities judged her amenable to rehabilitation, Sara received a sentence of life without parole. The judge said she “lacked moral scruples.” She has now been in prison nearly two decades.

A few years ago, when juvenile life without parole was coming under increased scrutiny and criticism, Sara’s case often served as an example for those opposed to the practice. Despite progress on the issue, and court decisions that increasingly narrowed the severity of punishments for juveniles, Sara languished until 2011 when Governor Schwarzenegger commuted her sentence to 25 – life, making her eligible for parole.

Wednesday, social media sites, including a Facebook page dedicated to her release, reported Sara took a big step towards regaining her freedom, something she has lived without since she was raped by the man who became her pimp. According to tweets from Liliana Segura, an editor at The Nation, and Prison Reform Movement, around 5:00 p.m. the California Parole Board decided it was time for Sara to be released. She was “found suitable for parole” according to  Tamar Birckhead, a University of North Carolina law professor and frequent contributor to JJIE, and “still needs [the] governor’s signature, but it’s coming.”

Times have changed since Sara received her sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has limited life without parole for kids. The California Senate unanimously passed SB 738, which would place juvenile victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation under the authority of dependency courts. Unlike Sara, victims will no longer be criminalized. The bill was championed by Senator Leland Yee after he heard Sara’s story. And in the U.S. Senate similar legislation has been proposed that would impact kids around the country.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Is it too late for Sara? I don’t think so. She has suffered greatly in her life, but has risen above her circumstances, remaining positive during her incarceration. Her story has inspired changes in public policy and laws, making the world safer for victims like her. Now she will have a chance to move forward with her life, and doubtless has much to offer her community and our society. The governor hopefully will soon sign her parole, and we can finally say to Sara, “Welcome home.”

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