Maggy Krell is a human rights lawyer representing Keiana Aldrich. Maheen Kaleem is a human rights lawyer.

California is known for its progressive stance on racial justice. In September, it became the first state to adopt a law seeking a path to reparations for slavery. But despite this laudable accomplishment, California is still failing some of society’s most vulnerable victims of systemic racism: Black women and girls who are exploited through sex trafficking, their lives damaged further by a legal system that too often treats survivors as criminals.

One of those survivors is Keiana Aldrich. At age 17, Keiana was prosecuted as an adult and sentenced to nearly 10 years in state prison for crimes directly related to her victimization. By then, every person and system that should have protected her had failed her.

A long trail of court documents outlines her story: As a child in a small town in Northern California, she was sexually abused by her father. Her mom moved her to Sacramento, but became trapped in an abusive relationship there, and Keiana fled the violence in her home. With nowhere safe to go, the girl ended up in the hands of traffickers and was forced to commit sex acts for money on a nightly basis. She cycled through juvenile hall several times without getting help. Fearing for her safety, she even testified against one trafficker — a terrifying experience for any victim, let alone a 16-year-old girl with no support structure — but was soon sent back out onto the Sacramento streets.

Keiana tried to take refuge with another minor, but that girl also exploited her to make money. According to police reports, an encounter with an adult man who was trying to buy Keiana for sex and the creation of pornography ended with the other girl producing a gun, forcing the man into a car trunk and taking him to a store to make purchases for them. Keiana told police the man tried to rape her, but she was charged as an adult with a number of felonies, and through a plea bargain accepted a nearly 10-year prison term for the crime of kidnapping.

She has spent every birthday from her 18th to her 25th behind bars. In a recently filed lawsuit, she says she has repeatedly been sexually violated by male prison employees. Keiana’s mental health has continued to deteriorate in prison as her trauma has been compounded. The covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated her isolation, depression and anxiety. Recently, she attempted suicide.

In July, Keiana filed a request for clemency, as an inmate with a significant health risk who has less than a year before parole eligibility. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has yet to respond.

Keiana joins a disproportionate number of Black women and girls who are sexually abused and exploited and then criminalized. Nationally, despite being only 13 percent of the population, African Americans make up 40 percent of human-trafficking survivors. Nearly 40 percent of those arrested for prostitution are Black. Black women are overrepresented in a prison system where the majority of women have been victims of sexual abuse or exploitation. Black girls constitute 14 percent of the juvenile population, but make up 33.2 percent of the juvenile justice population. And the vast majority of incarcerated girls have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse.

Thanks to decades of organizing and in the wake of recent protests, California and other states have started to consider policies to address structural violence impacting Black people. But more needs to be done specifically to address the marginalization, criminalization and underinvestment in Black girls, who experience systemic racism in school, in health care and in government systems that should protect them.

In New York, survivors of gendered violence — including sex trafficking — can be resentenced under a recently enacted law that allows judges to retroactively consider their status as victims. Growing awareness about the experiences of survivors such as Cyntoia Brown-Long, Sara Kruzan, Latesha Clay and Alexis Martin has shed light on the myriad ways our systems fail child sex-trafficking survivors. Still, no data has been collected on the number of survivors such as Keiana who are imprisoned for crimes committed as child victims.

In 2016, California ended the shameful practice of prosecuting child sex-trafficking victims for prostitution and created a better safety net. But it is time to do more. California and other states should pass legislation that exempts child sex-trafficking survivors from being tried as adults, collect data to identify incarcerated survivors, enact clear statutory authority to grant early release to survivors whose crimes are directly related to being trafficked, and take substantive measures to prevent further criminalization of trafficking survivors.

Keiana cannot protest the injustice of her circumstances from her prison cell at the California Institute for Women. As America reckons with our legacy of structural racism and violence against Black communities, we have an opportunity and an obligation to correct injustices of the past that still shackle the futures of girls and women such as Keiana Aldrich. California’s governor should start by granting her petition for clemency.

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