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.