An Iowa judge’s decision this week ordering a teenage girl – who was 15 when she killed a man who repeatedly raped her – to pay her family $150,000 in restitution has reignited the conversations about what justice looks like for girls and young women who have experienced sexual violence. violence.
Pieper Lewis, who killed her alleged rapist in 2020, received a deferred judgment from Polk County District Judge David Porter after pleading guilty to intentional homicide and intentional injury.
Lewis is just one of many teenagers – often of color – who have been legally sanctioned or convicted of killing their sex trafficker or abuser in recent years in the United States.
Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom granted clemency to Sara Kruzan, who was sentenced to life without parole as a teenager for killing a man who sexually assaulted and victimized her. deals in 1994.
In Wisconsin, Chrystul Kizer is facing a life sentence for killing the man she says forced her into sex trafficking. After a state Supreme Court ruling in July, Kizer will be allowed to argue in court that her actions were the “direct result” of trafficking, a defense that could see the charges against her acquitted.
And in Tennessee, Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who paid to rape her when she was trafficked at age 16. Now 32, Brown was granted clemency in 2019, after spending half her life behind bars.
In response to Lewis’ decision, Brown – who is now a criminal justice reform advocate and author – told PBS Newshour, “It’s just a story that has unfortunately become all too familiar.”
“She’s been victimized in this situation, not only is she going to have to serve a sentence in an institution, but over the next five years anything she does can lead to her serving a 20-year sentence. It is therefore not really free.
Advocates like KellyMarie Meek of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault told CNN, “Women of color who have been sexually abused and trafficked who act in self-defense against those who wrong have not been well treated by our legal system historically.”
Iowa is not among dozens of states with a so-called safe harbor law offering legal protection to victims of human trafficking.
“There is a disproportionate number of black and brown people who are in our criminal justice system and are incarcerated in our jails and jails in Iowa,” Meek said. “That’s a lot more than you would expect based on the population of people of color in Iowa. And so that, it’s hard to imagine that has nothing to do with that.
The most recent figures from the US National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 22,326 victims and survivors of trafficking in 2020. Of these, 14,597 were sex trafficking cases and 1,048 were sex trafficking cases. and work, or forcing someone to work by fraud or coercion. Agricultural and domestic work are common avenues for labor trafficking, according to the hotline.
The average age of trafficked persons was 17, and the number of older people identified by the hotline has dropped sharply. The sum of younger victims was about the same as the number of 17-year-olds.
In his plea agreement, Lewis laid out the series of events leading up to the murder. She described fleeing an abusive home environment and finding herself with nowhere to live until she was taken in by an older man who she says trafficked her and forced her having sex with other men for money, including Brooks… She described being assaulted multiple times, including while he was unconscious, saying: “I suddenly realized that M . Brooks had raped me again and was mad with rage.”
Lewis faced up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to intentional homicide and intentional bodily harm. But the judge postponed those sentences on Tuesday – meaning her guilty plea could be overturned if she completes five years of probation in a residential correctional facility.
The judge said restitution was mandatory under Iowa law. “This court has no choice but to impose $150,000 in restitution payable to Mr. Brooke’s estate.”
Meek said she understands the restitution decision and the fact that the judge had no discretion.
“It worked very poorly in this case, but I don’t want to automatically swing the pendulum and say, we’re just going to get rid of this,” she said.
As outrage continues to grow over Lewis’ case, a GoFundMe campaign started by one of Lewis’ former teachers topped $388,000 on Thursday afternoon. But rights campaigners say the case highlights a wider trend that victims of sexual abuse and trafficking are being punished rather than protected by the justice system.
“I don’t think justice has been done. I think justice would not have seen Pieper Lewis spending time behind bars,” Meek told CNN. “It’s not the worst result that could have happened, but it’s far from the best result, and that’s certainly not fair.”
“The decision to prosecute Lewis and the resulting sentence sends a clear message to black women, girls and gender-broad individuals – the law will not protect you – and if you stand up for yourself, you will pay a heavy price,” said said Marcela Howell, the president. and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, said in a statement after the ruling.
Experts like attorney Lindsey Ruff told CNN, “Too often we see a tragic pattern where the criminal justice system punishes the victims of horrific crimes, rather than the real perpetrators.”
Ruff, who represented multiple groups in a brief supporting Kizer, said the root causes of human trafficking are complex and addressing these issues requires complex solutions.
“Many victims of trafficking – especially child victims like Chrystul or Peiper – suffer severe psychological consequences as a result of being trafficked, which can cause them to act in seemingly abnormal ways,” she said. “They may cope in self-destructive ways like drug use or violence, they may use self-help to defend themselves. These types of behaviors may increase risk – or directly lead to – contact with the health system. criminal justice The causal link between victimization and crime creates a cycle where victims are penalized for their reactions to their own trauma.
Meek also expressed concern about Lewis’ ability to handle the terms of his probation due to the severity of his trauma.
“Five years [of] strictly supervised probation is something that concerns me, because I know that many of the ways that trauma survivors deal with their trauma are not very well understood by people who have not been traumatized, which can sometimes lead to behaviors that cause problems for people,” she said.
It’s a sentiment shared by Brown as a survivor-turned-defender.
“We have a long way to go in educating people about what it’s really like for someone who is trafficked, the life they have to live, the things they have to resort to just to survive,” said she said in the interview with PBS NewsHour. “Even in states where we have mechanisms in place for prosecutors, for judges to be lenient, to consider these people as young girls who have responded from a place of trauma and need services, and who are not incarcerated, sometimes the people who are involved in these cases do not necessarily see it.
The issue is complex, and experts like Ruff say the power dynamic between victim and abuser must be considered to avoid re-traumatizing victims by penalizing them for self-protection.
“A continued physical and emotional power imbalance between a victim and their abuser can lead to learned helplessness, and a sense that the threat of serious harm is always present and always imminent,” Ruff said. “Abuse can erode a victim’s sense of security to the point that they never feel safe, which can cause them to act out of fear or desperation in their interactions with their abusers.”
In the United States, the children most vulnerable to sex trafficking are those living in poverty, often known to child protective services, in foster care, in generally unstable conditions, according to social workers and researchers. Many were sexually abused as children before becoming victims.
“Our data shows that people are being exploited because traffickers know there are certain groups of people who don’t have support, who don’t have the ability to get accounts or justice for them. themselves,” said Robert Beiser, Director of Strategic Initiatives. for sex trafficking at Polaris, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, previously told CNN in a sex trafficking report. “And those people who, if you exploit them, are much less likely to run into problems as traffickers or buyers of sex.”
The trauma lingers for victims of sex trafficking and for teens like Lewis who exist at the intersection of being black, a girl, and growing up in unstable environments — the path to justice is unwieldy.
“Injustice and violence against black women and girls are crises of reproductive and racial justice, whether the harm is perpetrated by an abuser, a police officer, or the courts and the criminal justice system itself,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, to CNN.
“This is yet another example of how the system is failing in our communities and, in fact, punishing and allowing Black women and girls to continue to be punished.”