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 After 74 days of incarceration, bail was revoked altogether.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


Juveniles are not given the right to a speedy trial in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. Some states will allow juveniles the right to a trial, but they are not required to do so.


The justice system is fucked up period !!

Misty Brady

He was in jail because he could not pay for his freedom in the amount of $3000. He was arrested because it was THOUGHT he committed a crime. The fact that he has prior convictions in not supposed to be used against him in this instance. Because how do we know whether he was truly guilty then or I he simply plead guilty so he could get out of jail? We don’t know & that is the point! The reason he didn’t get a speedy trial is that our system is ridiculously back logged with individuals just like this kid & on top of that our justice system has a shortage of judges that is only increasing with every passing year. We have reached a point of being so eager to jail anyone & everyone for trivial offenses that our system is bogged down to the point of being ineffective & unconstitutional. This person was 100% held in jail simply because he was poor. Too poor to pay the 10% ransom on his head much less the $3000 bond in full. Had he been privileged he could have been out on bond after being arrested for this or even murder without serving a single day in jail. How is that fair & equal treatment? How is that justice? It isn’t. That’s the point. A wealthy privileged man can commit murder & post bond immediately completely evading jail & detention. A man is accused of stealing a backpack & spends years in jail languishing only to have the charges dropped. That is out system & if you think this article is skewed then you grossly uninformed, blinded by your white privilege, and frankly ignorant. This article is spot on & it’s one of tens of thousands that happen every year in this country. Justice is not only for the wealthy & privileged. This is just another way to exploit & punish the poor, minorities, and disenfranchised. Please sir educate yourself & pray that if someone you love is arrested you have the resources to buy their freedom because it doesn’t end with bail. If one can not afford a capable private attorney & is accused of a serious crime they will most likely be convicted (guilty or not) and receive a much harsher punishment than their wealthy counterpart. This is our justice system.


First off being accused does not mean you did it, being a previous felon doesn't either so the only issue here is his ability to pay or not to pay and that is what this whole thing is about not being stuck in jail awaiting trial because your poor.

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


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