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 After 74 days of incarceration, bail was revoked altogether.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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Charnette Black

The justice system let 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


This is such a tragedy, prayers to this young man's family. Our judicial system definitely needs to be reformed, I am going through a similar situation. My fiance was falsely accused of a crime he did not commit, we were unable to afford bail or proper representation and he was sentenced to 15yrs in prison, the way his case was handled was so wrong on so many levels. We are still fighting for justice to this day and we will not give up. May Kalief R.I.P.


Of course, blacks,while 13% of the population, account for about half the violent crime. Culture, not race.


Are you really this asinine. white peoples culture is to subjugate and kill everyone in their way. That's your people's history. Not my peoples.


White Americans killed the Indians, Mexican's, French, Spanish, Blacks. When the Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Italians, etc.... You all are the true animals. You just don't ever want to discuss your horrendous history. You hypocrites. The world and God know the truth about you and who you truly are. Judgement day is coming and that you will not escape. Thank the Lord. Can't wait to see you try and explain it to him. You are probably a Godless heathen though with this much hate in your heart for your fellow man.


The whole system is tragic.


$3000 bail (usually $300 to a bail bond company) doesn't sound like much to a judge, but it's a lot of money to anyone who's poor.

When a judge feels that someone is a significant flight risk or a danger to the others, bail is set at $1 million, sometimes $10 million, because that person is seen as a real danger.

For suspicion of stealing a backpack, the appropriate disposition at a bond hearing is ROR. If the Prosecutor's case is weak, the judge should drop the charges.

If the Prosecutor prevents a speedy trial, let the Prosecutor live in Rikers until s/he is ready to try the case.

It was a backpack for chrissakes.


After watching the BET documentary of Kalief Browder's, several arrest should've of been made. The correction officers were horrible, which most are. The judge and attorney didn't care about this Kalief case. They continue pushing this boy case back, like he murder someone. This is one of the saddest story I have ever heard and I don't even know the family.

Tiffany Rogers

I sit hurting for Kalief every part of the documentary I watch. I had so much more I thought I would be able to say but I can't. My heart is heavy, my tears are many, and my prayers are endless. Loves in need of love today.

Bernice Garvin

His story definitely spark sumten n me. I'm so angry..the system failed him. N the so call ppl..the D.A. especially needs to be charged n held accountable for his death.


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