Sean Ahshee Taylor’s formative years in Denver were filled with challenges: His mom battled crack addiction, and his father, who was not a major presence in his life, was incarcerated in prison.
When he was about 14, Sean joined the Bloods street gang. To adolescent Sean, the gang offered the potential of financial stability. He saw some gang members driving flashy cars and wearing expensive sneakers. “I was attracted to people doing negative things in the neighborhood,” Sean recalled.
In 1989, when he was 17, Sean fired a gun into the home of a rival gang member. Sean did not intend to kill or even hurt the rival, he just wanted to scare him. Tragically, the lone bullet Sean fired struck another 17-year-old boy, who was not a gang rival. The victim died. Sean saw a local TV news report about the death, and, filled with remorse, turned himself in to police.
Prosecutors charged Sean as an adult with first-degree homicide and related offenses. In 1990, a jury convicted Sean of first-degree homicide and the judge sentenced him to life in prison, which meant he would not be eligible for a parole hearing until he had served 40 years. During his first year in prison, Sean was involved in a couple of gang-related skirmishes, “I was living the same say in prison,” Sean recalled. “I realized I had to leave that lifestyle alone completely.”
Sean began reading numerous books, and eventually taught fellow incarcerated people adult basic education. Sean, who speaks some Spanish, also taught ESL (English as a Second Language) courses.
In 2011, a juvenile-clemency board created by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) granted clemency to Sean and three other people who were minors at the time of their crimes. Sean was released at age 38.
Since he regained his freedom, Sean has dedicated his life to helping other people who have been incarcerated. Shortly after he gained his freedom, Sean was hired as a case worker by the Second Chance Center, in Aurora. The center aspires to reduce the recidivism rates of men and women who have been incarcerated by helping them transition into successful lives in society. Sean is a role model for the people he works with.
Since he started working at the Center, he has worked his way up and is now the organization’s deputy director. He is also a gang intervention specialist.
“The most rewarding part of the job is to walk someone through the necessary steps to cut prison out of their lives altogether,” Sean said. “To cut out substance abuse and criminal behavior.”
Dolphy Jordan is living proof that all children have the capacity to change and grow.
At 16, Dolphy pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. He was released from prison in April 2010, after serving nearly 22 years. Since then, he has worked hard to build a productive life in the Seattle area.
During the more than 21 years he served in prison, Dolphy earned his GED. After he was released, Dolphy earned an associate’s degree, graduating with honors. He has since been working on an undergraduate degree in social work while working fulltime for Therapeutic Health Services, a nonprofit organization that provides a wide array of services. Dolphy helps provide services to people who have been diverted to Drug Court, rather than to jail for low-level drug offenses. Dolphy connects Drug Court clients — many of them homeless people — to community resources, such as health and housing services, and assists them with employment and education. He also makes sure they have ID, health coverage, clothes — the essentials for building a successful life.
Dolphy’s early life was challenging. He was born in San Diego, and grew up in Seattle in an impoverished and abusive home environment. His father was addicted to drugs, and Dolphy’s mother relied on welfare to raise him and his sister.
By the time he was in the 9th grade, Dolphy had attended 15 or 16 different schools. He acted out, and was kicked out of some schools for truancy and bad behavior. At one point, his mom also kicked him out of the house. For a while, Dolphy bounced between the streets and various foster homes. He also started using drugs.
In 1989, Dolphy and two friends ran away to California together. One of the other teenagers hated his mother, who worked as a prostitute. One of the woman’s clients had abused Dolphy’s teenage friend, who had talked of wanting to kill his mom. Before they left Washington state, the three teenagers participated in her death, then went on the run. Dolphy was 16.
Dolphy quickly surrendered to authorities in California and took responsibility for his role in the crime. Authorities charged him as an adult, he pleaded guilty to killing the woman. A judge sentenced Dolphy to 27 years in prison. It wasn’t until about six years later — after he began to mature — that Dolphy understood how others had been harmed by his actions. One he realized that, Dolphy started working on becoming a better person.
Dolphy now advocates for changes in the laws regarding the ways we hold young people accountable. He also works with young people to encourage them to avoid the bad choices he made as a youngster.
Dolphy often shares his story with children, especially those dealing with truancy. He often goes to adult prisons in Washington state to talk about his journey. He said he understands he will have to deal with feelings of remorse his entire life.
“I’m not the same person I was at 16,” Dolphy said. “I will not be defined by my worst decision. I will be defined by the person I’ve become.”
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.”
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.