Kalief Browder’s Tragic Death and the Criminal Injustice of Our Bail System

Over the last two weeks, Americans have revisited the tragic details of the death of 22-year-old Kalief Browder. The documentary series “Time: The Kalief Browder Story,” airs its third of six episodes tonight about Kalief, who spent three years in jail without ever being convicted of the crime with which he was charged.

Kalief’s story matters. It matters for his family. It matters for his community. It matters for New York. It matters for our entire nation.

In Kalief’s story we can clearly see a culpable and fundamentally broken criminal justice system that punishes people for being poor, and subjects individuals to inhumane treatment. Kalief was 16 years old when he arrested in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. Bail was set at $3,000. The family could not afford that amount, so Kalief didn’t get to go home after he was charged. Instead, he was sent to the infamous Rikers Island jail in New York City.

Let’s just pause on that fact: He had to go to Rikers because he couldn’t pay $3,000 in bail.

Kalief spent more than 1,100 days incarcerated, maintaining his innocence throughout. Prosecutors repeatedly offered plea deals, which Kalief rejected. After 74 days of incarceration, bail was revoked altogether. By the time he left Rikers, this boy, who had been accused of stealing a backpack, had spent almost 800 days of solitary confinement.

Eventually prosecutors realized they had no case and dismissed all charges. He was released on June 5, 2013. Yet the damage done to him was a new kind of prison that stayed with him. After his release, he told The New Yorker, “I’m not all right. I’m messed up.” On June 6, 2015, he hung himself with an air conditioner cord. He was 22 years old.

Kalief’s abuse at the hands of the criminal justice system is a clarion to overhaul our nation’s jail system.

On any given day, hundreds of thousands of Americans who haven’t been convicted of a crime rot in jail simply because they are too poor to afford bail amounts that would secure their freedom.

More than 3,000 jails in the United States hold more than 650,000 people on any given day. About two-thirds, 450,000 people, are held awaiting trial. Most are in jail because they could not afford bail or a bail agent refused to post a bond. Their wealth determines whether they are incarcerated.

This pretrial detention jails nearly half a million people at any given time and fuels over-incarceration by inducing guilty pleas, forcing people to lose jobs and housing, subjecting them to longer sentences, and exacting physical and financial damage. The inability to afford bail ruins lives, harms whole families, and has a negative impact on entire communities.

The growth of jails in the U.S. is a major contributor to the national disease of mass incarceration. According to a report by the Vera Institute for Justice, the number of annual jail admissions doubled in the past three decades to 12 million, and the average length of stay increased from 14 to 23 days. According to the report, half of the people in New York City’s jails in 2013 were held on bail of $2,500 or less. And the system reproduces the structural racism already embedded in the criminal justice system. Black Americans, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, account for 36 percent of the jail population. They are jailed at almost four times the rate of white Americans.

Yet there is hope. The ACLU and communities across the nation are fighting back, rejecting systems that require money in exchange for freedom. The state of New Jersey recently overhauled its bail system and nearly eliminated cash bail while also establishing a pretrial services agency. The reforms, which took effect in January of this year, are encouraging: In 3,382 cases processed in the first four weeks of January, judges set bail only three times.

The bail reform movement is gaining steam across America. While New Jersey’s overhaul may be the most far-reaching, Alaska, Maine, and New Mexico also made progress on bail reform last year. And throughout 2017, the ACLU will be working in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Ohio, Nebraska, Texas, Vermont, and Washington to advance reforms that would allow people to go home without bail.

Nothing will bring Kalief Browder back. But his tragic end is not the end of his story. We need to reform our nation’s broken criminal justice system and ensure that no one else faces the horrible tragedy Kalief did. This is how we honor him.

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Though incorrectly worded , he was in jail for being accused of a crime, and thereafter bail revoked because of a previous juvenile charge. Just because you put emphasis on the word felony doesn't mean that just because someone claims you have done something wrong that you now should fall under a different set of rules that are contrary to " innocent until proven guilty".


John your comments are beyond ignorant. Yes he may have been in jail because he was accused of a crime but he had to stay in Jail/Prison for over 1000 days because his family was poor and could not post the $3000.00 bond that would have gotten him out within a few days. Have you watched any of this series showing the torture he had to go through for 3 years for allegedly stealing a backpack? Over 800 days in solitary confinement! I'm sure if it was one of your loved ones that had to go through this you would have a different attitude and be singing a different tune about this disgusting tragedy.


Ny has another law that puts the 6 month speedy trial to the limit. For every extension the DA needs, i.e. 2 weeks to speak to witnesses, the 6 months start over again. I believe that Browdard had a minimum of 13 extensions against him, plus no witness (who fled back to Mexico), the prosecution was hoping for him to plead out like the other 70% of inmates at Rikers.

Colleen P

In response to John, the fact that this very young man had a record, if it was indeed the case (NY is one of the few states that will charge children under the age of 16 as adults in felony cases) does not mean that he should have been a target for law enforcement, or that he should have been denied adequate and effective representation, or that he should have spent nearly 800 days in solitary confinement, all for a crime that a cursory investigation later proved that he could not possibly have committed. His incarceration and his consequent death are tragic, pure and simple. The system needs fixing, and Black Lives Matter.


Great response Colleen!!


Thanks Colleen


Has nothing to do with him being black, stop with the race card.


It has plenty to do with being black.

I knew he was black before I even read that piece of information.

Black lives DO AND SHOULD matter. I'm not black, but I'll get up on my soapbox every day if need be to speak up on behalf of my black American brothers and sisters.

This is an absolute travesty, and it happens way too often in my country.

Thank you, Colleen, for articulating what I could not.

How shameful the United States of the early 21st century will look in the history books of the early 22nd century. I feel ashamed of this miscarriage of justice.

This child was robbed of life. Stop pretending race had nothing to do with it, all of you who say a race card has been played.

Sharon S

Just because people. are jailed. Doesn't mean. They have to be feed like a animal. People are feed as if they were a one year old. And the lowest grade of food. Some jail in New Jersey charge RENT. Atlantic County

Charnette Black

The justice system left him down. The correction officer's are suppose to protect you not beat on you.This is crazy. They weren't feeding him. Im a paralegal for 15 years. Then their telling him kill his self. The story in itself would make you wonder. In the beginning the guy that claims his brother got robbed. Told the cop that it wasn't Kalife that robbed his brother. The officer's New York Finest tried to make the guy say it was him. Soooo sad. Where is the justice for this young man


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