Assembly Bill 124 would allow courts to consider an individual’s age, history of trauma and victimization at the hands of human traffickers or intimate partners, potentially reducing criminal penalties. It would allow individuals like me to be seen not as criminals, but as the survivors and humans that we are.
By April Grayson, Special to CalMatters
April Grayson is a policy associate with the Young Women’s Freedom Center in Sacramento, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I grew up in California’s foster care system, which I entered as an infant. I suffered many horrors at the hands of the system and of others in it.
At age 3, my birth mother was murdered. From ages 3 to 5, I was subjected to repeated sexual abuse by a 13-year-old who also was in the system. The family that adopted me a year later only saw a pretty little girl. They didn’t see the baggage I carried or anticipate the behavioral issues that resulted from my traumatic start in life.
When I was 15, my adopted mother died in front of me, her husband and their son. Within three months of her death, my adopted father placed me back in foster care. I was then admitted into a youth mental hospital for threatening to commit suicide. The facility was set on beachfront property — a beach we were forbidden to visit without supervision. One day, a group of us staged a sit-in to protest this restriction. Of the 15 children who participated, only two of us — the only Black girls in the group — were arrested. The girl arrested with me was released hours later into the custody of her parents. With no one to claim me, I had to spend four months in juvenile hall. Essentially, I was criminalized for not having parents.
I spent the rest of my teenage years shuffling through foster and group homes. When I was 17, my only sibling died in a car crash.
I emancipated from the system at age 18 without an adequate support system. One of my close friends was introduced to the underground sex economy by a married couple. It may seem unbelievable, but I envied her. Her lifestyle seemed to give her a family and a stable living situation, which I lacked. Eventually, I got involved with a trafficker too, who taught me that life in the streets could be dangerous, and gave me a gun for self-protection.
There were plenty of other girls like me on the street, and I could see their vulnerability. Armed with the gun and accompanied by my trafficker, I thought I could shield them from the dangers we all faced, and I took them under my wing.
Within a few months, I was arrested and charged with kidnapping, pimping and pandering, with gun enhancements. At age 19, I was sentenced to 20 years and eight months in prison. My 27-year-old male co-defendant and trafficker was not convicted of any charges related to mine.
It would be easy to judge me by what I did during that period of my life, but without taking into account the nearly nonstop trauma that preceded it, you don’t have the whole picture. This is true for the majority of survivors of human trafficking, intimate partner violence and sexual violence — who are predominantly Black, brown and indigenous women and queer and trans people. We are criminalized, rather than assessed as a whole person, punished for surviving exploitation and abuse.
Assembly Bill 124 — state Sen. Sydney Kamlager’s Justice for Survivors Act — would change that. It would allow courts to consider an individual’s age, history of trauma and victimization at the hands of human traffickers or intimate partners, potentially reducing criminal penalties. It would allow individuals like me to be seen not as criminals, but as the survivors and humans that we are.
AB 124 does not absolve anyone of responsibility or accountability; it creates more meaningful pathways toward justice. It has the potential to disrupt the abuse-to-prison pipeline and give survivors of violence a chance to recover from trauma and live as valued and contributing members of society.
None of the systems supposedly designed to support struggling youths ever helped me. I look back and wish that a therapist, a police officer, a prosecutor or a judge had identified me as the victim that I was, and given me resources to address my trauma and rebuild my life.
I urge Californians to support AB 124, not only for the benefit of survivors of violence, but to cut down on the needless and enormous costs of incarceration, and to increase healing and reunification within society.