Below are the profiles of several ICAN members who were incarcerated for extreme sentences as children. Though they struggled both emotionally and in more tangible ways with childhood, being incarcerated, and becoming returning citizens, they are successful in their transitions and are making positive waves in their communities.

2014 Healing & Hope Ralph Brazel, Jr.
Co-Founder of ICAN

At 17, Ralph Brazel was given three life-without-parole sentences. Ralph was found guilty of being part of a drug operation led by adults, including older members of his own family. Nationwide, youth who are sentenced to life without parole often acted alongside adults, who are frequently given less harsh sentences. “It didn’t hit me until maybe a year or so later. I was just sitting down watching TV one day and I thought, I have life in prison. It was beyond belief.” Ralph said while in prison, he decided he would work to become the best human being he could be. He enrolled in classes, including Spanish and Arabic, studied history, leadership, and social sciences, and obtained training in electrical construction and maintenance. He also committed to treating his fellow inmates and prison employees with respect. “I just started dealing with human beings as human beings,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that I agreed with my sentence.” In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to impose life without parole on a child for a non-homicide offense. Ralph became eligible for parole and was released last fall, weeks before his 40th birthday.

Ralph now is working to build a life outside prison. He has a job, but feels he has lots of catching up to do financially. “I’m not married but I very much want to be,” he said. He also wants to build a family. His toddler son was killed while Ralph was in prison. In the meantime, Ralph is taking pleasure in everyday experiences. He can walk outside his house in the middle of the night if he wants to. He can go to the refrigerator for food or a drink without asking permission. He was thrilled to go to a recent kite show at the Santa Monica Pier. “Everything is gratifying,” he explained. “A lot of the things that people complain about, I revel in. I don’t mind waiting two minutes at a traffic light.” Since his release, Ralph has become an advocate for sentencing reform. He speaks frequently to educate youth and others about life without parole for children. “My hopes are that it would be abolished altogether,” he stated. Ralph was a 2014 Healing & Hope honoree.

Xavier Mc-Elrath-Bey HeadshotXavier McElrath-Bey
Co-Founder of ICAN and Youth Justice Advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

Xavier McElrath-Bey was told at 13 that he was incorrigible. Xavier didn’t even know the meaning of the word, but it was part of the argument his probation officer made when urging a juvenile court judge to transfer his case to the adult criminal justice system for his involvement in a murder. Xavier had been arrested 19 times by then. The arrests began when he was only 9. “I look back now at some of the things I did,” he said, “and I can’t believe any child would do them.” Xavier’s public defender knew his behaviors were not the result of a flaw inherent in him. He was a child who had experienced extreme poverty, which meant that frequently, he and his siblings did not have food. He experienced violence at home and abuse from a foster parent. He sought family in a gang. Xavier served 13 years in prison. While there, he earned a college degree, transformed into a different person, and dedicated his life to the victim in his case. “I am nothing like the person I used to be,” he stated.

Xavier, 39, is proof that kids grow and change. Xavier recently joined the CFSY as our youth justice advocate. A restorative justice practitioner, Xavier most recently worked for a longitudinal study of the mental health needs, service utilization, and outcomes of formerly incarcerated youth at Northwestern University, where he conducted more than 800 clinical field interviews. He previously worked in Chicago as the juvenile justice diversion program coordinator for Alternatives, Inc., as a Catholic Charities street intervention specialist with children in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where he grew up, and as a cease-fire outreach worker. Outside of work, Xavier works with young people in Chicago to help them avoid involvement in the criminal justice system. He has worked to develop a network of formerly incarcerated youth and has been active in state coalitions working to eliminate extreme sentences for children.

Xavier also has featured in a number of media stories about the impact of extreme sentences on children. A video released last year in which he talks about his experience and the need to end life-without-parole sentences for children has been viewed more than 40,000 times on YouTube. He delivered a TEDx talk in early 2014 at Northwestern University. “My involvement in this effort has given me hope and helped me believe that we can make a difference,” Xavier said. “My ultimate goal is to help change the face of youth offenders. I want people to understand that kids are just kids and anyone who grows up in such circumstances can fall victim to these bad choices.  I know I was once that kid and I know if I can change, they can too.”