Too Many Federal Prisoners

About 100 people met in Washington, DC recently to address the issue of youth who receive overly harsh sentences, particularly life without parole. They shared stories and policy and litigation updates from across the country at the annual meeting of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a Washington, DC-based organization that brought together policymakers as well as family members – of victims and of those convicted – who have become advocates for incarcerated youth. The Campaign is a grantee of the Public Welfare Foundation.

In recent years, research has shown that adolescents often lack the judgment and maturity to make good decisions and that their brains continue to develop into early adulthood. The research has reinforced the judgment of many who work with youth that involvement in criminal activity at a young age should not be seen or treated as a firm indicator that an individual youth cannot be rehabilitated.

The U.S. Supreme Court has cited this research in a series of decisions in the past few years, striking down life sentences for non-homicide cases involving youth, eliminating the juvenile death penalty, and, most recently, in 2012, striking down mandatory sentences of life without parole for anyone convicted of a crime when they were under the age of 18.

Those decisions have invalidated or called into question laws in all states, particularly as they have been applied to adolescents who are age 17 and younger. Many states are grappling with how best to update their laws.

All the legal and legislative activity is giving some individuals a second chance. That is what has happened to Ralph Brazel, who was released in August, 2013 as a result of one of the Supreme Court rulings, after spending 22 years in prison. He was convicted on drug and conspiracy charges when he was 17.

“I was in federal prison [on a] triple life sentence for the amount of drugs you could fit in one hand,” he told the gathering. But the feeling of being sentenced to a long prison term was hard to describe.

“You go before a judge as a child and [you are] told that you don’t ever deserve to be a part of society ever again,” he said. “It’s like being buried alive.”

For more information about the Campaign, click here.


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

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