Sara Kruzan was 16 when she lured her former pimp into a motel room, shot and killed him and took his money. The terrible crime was committed in Riverside County by a girl who had been sexually molested and physically abused since her earliest days, raised by an addicted mother, gang-raped at 13 and at the same age sent into the streets to make a living as a prostitute by the man she would eventually kill.
But teenagers change. Today, at 32, Kruzan is a model prisoner in the honor dorm at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla. In January, she will receive her associate’s degree from the nearby community college. She has volunteered for dozens of rehabilitation programs and won awards for her participation and attitude.
She also serves as an important reminder of why sentencing juvenile offenders to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is backward and counterproductive. Science and society have learned more in recent years about the still-immature and rapidly developing brains of adolescents.
Kruzan murdered in 1994. Since then, society also has learned more about human trafficking and the effects of long-term abuse and psychological imprisonment. If she were being sentenced today, it’s far less likely that she would receive such a draconian prison term. Even at the time, an evaluation by the California Youth Authority noted her unusual tractability, her remorse and her willingness and desire for an education. The CYA felt that she should have been prosecuted as a juvenile rather than as an adult, which would have put her into a rehabilitation program from which she could have been freed by age 25 — seven years ago.
Kruzan’s case is an extraordinary one, and activists and a phalanx of lawyers are working pro bono to free her. Their ultimate effort is an appeal to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for clemency before he leaves office.
Not all juvenile criminals should receive parole, but if they turn themselves around as Kruzan did, they should be given the opportunity to put their cases before a court or parole board. That’s why the Legislature should pass a bill that was reintroduced this week by state Sen. Leland Yee (D- San Francisco) after being rejected in August. The modest legislation would allow courts to review the cases of juveniles who were sentenced to life without parole after 10 years, possibly reducing their sentences to 25 years to life.
Meanwhile, the governor has an opportunity to leave office next month with a message of hope for California. Kruzan can become a contributing member of society — and a prime example of the value of rehabilitative programs in prison — or she can be a lifelong liability to taxpayers. People, especially teenagers, have the power to change. They can become better people. And sometimes, they do.