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.
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.
Sara Kruzan knows the power of both hope and hopelessness. She was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1995 when she was 16, after she killed a person who had been abusing her for years. Sara served more than half of her life before earning a commuted sentence and eventual release in 2013. She is now 36. “I began to think that I deserved my sentence,” she said. “I did not receive counseling for what I had done and I just thought there was no need to do anything. Why get an education? I’m going to die here. I thought that was just going to be my life.”
As she matured, Sara found ways to motivate herself. A former runner in school, she drew on the same power that helped her push forward when it felt like her lungs and legs would collapse. “Somehow, I took that and transformed it into a spiritual energy,” Sara described. “I discovered a strength while inside Chowchilla State Prison for Women that aided in redefining myself and helped me build a hope that inspired me to live my best life each day despite the confining circumstances.” She also became a model prisoner. She lived in the honor dorm, where she was recognized for her leadership. She also served as a mentor to other incarcerated women. She met with them regularly, taught them life skills and helped them set and meet goals, ranging from being kind to other people, to setting healthy boundaries, to maintaining a healthy diet. “I thought that it was my responsibility to give back to my peers and to be a part of the team because not much was offered for me when I came to prison,” she explained. “I just wanted to be a vessel for the other ladies.”
Sara’s case drew the attention of people throughout the country and the world, including those involved in the human trafficking movement. Advocates, fellow inmates, prison officials, and a bevy of other people wrote letters in support of her relief. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted her sentence to 25 years with the possibility of parole, and prosecutors last year agreed to reduce her conviction to second-degree murder, which made her immediately eligible for parole. Sara was released from prison in October 2013. Less than two weeks later, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth honored her with the annual Healing & Hope Award during its annual awards reception. Sara accepted the award and offered comments electronically. “Having been in the position of serving a JLWOP sentence and now being an active member of society after serving 19 years plus, it is a wonderful feeling to live a life outside of a prison setting.”
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.”