By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California woman who served nearly two decades in prison for killing her pimp at age 16 was released on parole on Thursday, after becoming the face of a campaign to reform the treatment of young offenders.

Sara Kruzan, 35, left the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla before dawn, state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Luis Patino said in a statement.

Kruzan was taken to Orange County in Southern California, where she will live, and processed at a parole office, Patino said.

Earlier this week, when California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, upheld her parole, the decision was hailed as a watershed moment by lawmakers and activists who had fought on her behalf for more than five years.

State Senator Leland Yee called Kruzan the poster child for a bill that became law this year, allowing offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before age 18 the chance to petition for a new hearing on their sentence.

Kruzan, who advocates say was raised by an abusive, drug-addicted single mother, said in a 2009 Human Rights Watch video that she was sexually assaulted at age 11 by George Howard, the man she would later kill.

Within two years, Howard had her working as a child prostitute. In March 1994, then 16-year-old Kruzan shot him to death in a motel room in Riverside, California.

Kruzan lost a bid to stand trial as a juvenile and a Riverside County jury found her guilty of first-degree murder.

A judge sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Human Rights Watch video, in which she expresses remorse for the crime and describes her grim life as a prostitute, drew widespread attention to her case.

The year after the video was released, then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, commuted her prison sentence to 25 years to life, which made her eligible to be considered for parole.

Earlier this year, the California Board of Parole Hearings found her suitable for release, sending their recommendation to Brown, who notified the board on Monday that he would not intervene to stop her from being released.

(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)


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