By Sara Kruzan

One day when I was 11 and walking home from school, George Howard pulled over and lured me into his vehicle. My life has never been the same.

This man saw my vulnerability; he projected himself as a father figure who wanted to keep me safe, but when I was 12, he raped me. At 13, I became a victim of sex trafficking, where he forced me to sell my body for money and physically abused me. This went on for several years. At 16, I took his life, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Approximately 2,500 other children, most of whom also experienced severe trauma and abuse, also have been sentenced to life without parole – a sentence to die in prison. Adolescent brain research confirms what most adults already know: children are developmentally different from adults. Children do not have the same capacity to control their reactions, think through long-term consequences of their behaviors, or ignore pressure from peers and adults. Research also has demonstrated that youth possess a unique capacity to change and grow. Treating a child like an adult when she commits a crime means ignoring these facts.

Most of the young offenders I encountered were like me. Many of my peers had been molested, raped, and endured other horrific physical and mental abuses. With no one to protect them, these young people were left to survive by any means necessary. In desperation, many of them became susceptible to gangs and other negative influences, and they acted out with tragic results.

Just like what I wanted at 11, when I entered prison, I wanted to be accepted and feel safe. Instead I felt extremely fragile and impressionable, and I was also physically much smaller than the adults with whom I was imprisoned. But through my adolescence in prison, I matured a great deal. I educated myself; I earned my high school diploma, obtained an Associates in Social and Behavior Science, became certified to facilitate workshops helping my peers, and lived in the Honor Dorm. But despite it all, the fact remained: I would die in prison.

After nearly two decades of work by my attorneys and advocates dedicated to my release, my case was reviewed and I was eventually resentenced. I was released from prison on October 31, 2013.

During the time when my fate was unknown, I relied on resilience, courage, and determination to somehow hold on to a frail piece of hope. We should give that hope to children accused of serious crimes by addressing their traumas, helping them to rehabilitate, and giving them a chance to change and rejoin society. In doing so, we will demonstrate that we value all children and believe that everyone can change.