More than one-third of women in California have experienced domestic violence. For women in prison, abuse rates are much higher.
Approximately 79 percent of women in federal and state prisons in 1999 reported previous physical abuse, and more than 60% reported past sexual abuse.
When survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking fight back against their abusers, they are often criminalized for trying to protect themselves. And, when survivors get into the courtroom, they are frequently blocked from sharing relevant information about their victimization.
In 1995, in a well-known California case, a judge sentenced 17-year-old Sara Kruzan as an adult to life without the possibility of parole for killing her trafficker—a man who began grooming her for child prostitution when she was just eleven years old. Kruzan was released in 2013, after nearly 20 years behind bars, but only because then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted her sentence. Evidence of Kruzan’s victimization was deemed inadmissible in court.
A new bill seeks to protect trafficking and abuse survivors in California from being criminalized as Kruzan was.
The Justice for Survivors Act, AB 1497, would permit defense attorneys to present evidence that a survivor was coerced to commit a violent crime as a direct result of their victimization and that they had a reasonable fear of harm.
Currently, individuals can only use personal victimization as an “affirmative defense” when charged with nonviolent offenses.
“Too often, victims and survivors of violence are blocked from the opportunity to heal because their trauma is used against them, ignored, or not accounted for during legal proceedings,” Californians for Safety and Justice, one of AB 1497’s co-sponsors, wrote in support of the bill. “Consequently, judges and juries are left with insufficient information and options to make key decisions about survivors’ lives, including in criminal charges and sentencing.”
AB 1497 would also widen the path to post-conviction relief for survivors.
Under current state law, people who have experienced human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence can petition the court to clear their record of arrests and convictions for nonviolent offenses if the petitioner can offer evidence that the crime was a direct result of their victimization. AB 1497 would expand the list of crimes for which survivors could petition the court for relief to include violent felonies.
“AB 1497 is important to me because it will allow me the opportunity to have my voice and experience as a survivor of violence acknowledged and considered in the court process,” said Adrianna Griffith, a survivor and advocate for the Justice for Survivors Coalition. “I’ll finally be able to apply for vacatur and remove the thing that constantly reminds me of the person who exploited and abused me.” Griffith expressed relief at the prospect of no longer having to “explain [her] abuse and trauma” when applying for jobs or housing.
Criminalizing victims, wrote Californians for Safety and Justice, ”leaves survivors without access to healing or crucial resources like housing, employment, education, and financial independence, and subjects them to continued cycles of violence, homelessness, and poverty.
Fortunately, California has been making steady progress to address the criminalization of survivors.
In 2016, two bills, SB 823 and AB 1761, made it possible for human trafficking victims to use affirmative defense in the courtroom, and a process called “vacatur” to petition the court for relief for certain low-level crimes.
Eligibility for those affirmative defense and vacatur processes was expanded to include victims of domestic violence and sexual violence in 2021, with the passage of AB 124. Survivors would have been able to access these legal processes for all crimes, including those categorized as violent, had the scope of the bill not been limited during the amendment process.
This year’s bill seeks to expand eligibility to people accused of violent crimes, and reintroduces other provisions abandoned or scaled down through amendments to AB 124.
During sentencing, AB 1497 would restrict courts’ ability to impose a prison term for sentence enhancements or to impose consecutive terms for two or more felonies for cases in which “psychological, physical, or childhood trauma, youthfulness, or being or having been a victim of intimate partner violence or human trafficking was a contributing factor in the commission of the alleged offense.”
The bill would also establish that evidence of mental illness or defect is admissible in court when determining “whether or not the accused actually formed the required mental state for the crime that is charged, including whether or not the accused committed a willful act, premeditated, deliberated, harbored malice aforethought, acted knowingly, acted maliciously, or acted with conscious disregard for human life.”
The bill goes “too far,” according to the San Diego Deputy District Attorneys Association, which has formally opposed AB 1497, along with the California District Attorneys Association and San Diegans Against Crime.
“AB1497 dramatically expands when and how a jury can consider a criminal defendant’s claimed mental defect or disorder to now include whether a person acted ‘willfully’ or on purpose for all general intent crimes including rape, domestic violence, assault with a deadly weapon, and assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury among many other crimes,” the association wrote in a statement of opposition.
The bill, the association said, would make it nearly impossible to hold people struggling with mental health issues responsible for general intent crimes. “Mentally ill people are deserving of treatment and resources, but we must acknowledge that they are likewise capable of intentionally committing crimes that greatly impact our communities and they do so every day in this state.”
The bill lists more than 50 supporters, including Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Rainbow Services, Ltd., the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, and the California Public Defenders Association.
A related law enacted in New York in 2019, appears to be producing positive outcomes, according to a new report from The Sentencing Project and the Survivors Justice Project.
Since the passage of New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, 35 women, four men, and one non-binary person — 80 percent of whom are people of color — have applied for and received post-conviction relief. The 40 beneficiaries of resentencing were spared at least 80 years in prison, combined.
“Had the DVSJA been in effect when the 40 survivors were originally sentenced, its lower sentencing ranges could have saved them over 275 years in prison,” according to the report’s authors.”
However, the new law has been met with resistance from some judges who choose to interpret the law very narrowly, or who outright deny relief despite acknowledging evidence of relevant abuse.
The report authors offer ways other states can learn from the successes and setbacks of implementation of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, as they pass and administer their own survivor justice laws.
“Survivor sentencing reform still falls far short of bringing justice to criminalized survivors – which would require preventing abuse, avoiding criminalization altogether, and a reimagining of all of the ways to respond to survivors who both experience and cause harm,” the researchers note. “But reducing the cruel and needless incarceration of survivors is nevertheless a vital step towards healing and limiting some of the harms of the carceral system.”