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 After 74 days of incarceration, bail was revoked altogether.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

View comments (74)
Read the Terms of Use


$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.


The main judge he dealt with, who conveniently remembers nothing about Kalief or her ridiculous comments about him during his 30+ court dates, truly needs to be held accountable. As does the entire DOC. who hires out of house psych staff who include, felons, current inmates, social workers who are just really interns, etc. That's another questionable practice. If you watch the series, you'll actually see some CO's smiling and laughing during their interviews. Disgusting.

Dave Maj

Free Rick Wershe!! "Richard John Wershe Jr. is a political prisoner in America. The political component of his ordeal is local, it’s harsh and it’s vindictive.
Wershe, who grew up in Detroit, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-violent drug crime committed when he was 17. The law was eventually changed to allow parole but that hasn’t made a difference for Wershe. He is Michigan’s last remaining juvenile non-violent drug offender, still behind bars after 29 years."

Dave Maj

Free Rick Wershe!! He's a juvenile lifer/non-violent drug offender who has been locked up for over 29 yrs.

More info about Rick and his case: https://www.facebook.com/FreeRickWersheJr/


Ashtabula ohio could use the ACLU assistance greatly. In this town the cops constantly profile people of color and fail to properly mirandize most people of color arrested. If a person was to ask the officer to read their Miranda rights, the officers simple response is that they don't have to and they get away without reading poor people their rights daily. Every poor man in this county has no rights and the people of color have even less. I feel this boys pain wanting justice trying to believe in a system that wants nothing more than to see him fail and dehumanizes him. The ways of our justice system is scary and rocky to any person of color. Only chance we have is if we have that financial status and if we don't then we mean nothing and the hell with poor people having rights.


He killed himself after he was released which therefore had nothing to do with his incarceration. He could have been out much sooner that choice was his to make. How you spend your time while incarcerated is up to you. You can either come out a better person or a worse person. But it is ultimately up to you. He was weak as most of our nation's younger generations are these days. They can't work worth a damn and have no sense of responsibility. Stop coddling these younger generations. I spent 14 years in prison. I came out a much better person. Three years is nothing. Even the amount of time I spent locked up is nothing. I know people that have sentences that are hundreds of years long. It's just a matter of whether you are weak or strong. Apparently he was weak. This does not entitle him to national attention or a mini series. There are much more important things to worry about in this country.


Are you joking ?? Maybe the criminal justice system was still pure when you went in. But the system today desensitizes everyone and causes those that are locked up to use their "flight or fight" response. Why should someone be on guard 24/7 in prison? Plus u make no sense! He was 16 years old! that's still an adolescent regardless of coddling or not! He shouldn't have been subjected to that savage kind of treatment! When someone isn't being fed, constantly on edge, watching his back, not even the officers were on his side! What else would he do?! And to those saying his suicide was after he came out, and that has nothing to do with it ?! Wtf THAT HAS EVERYTHING TO DO WITH IT. He wasn't even able to resume normalcy in civilized society because he wasn't able to even comprehend it! His mind degenerated in itself and he said himself he wasn't the same anymore! He didn't feel right. Even outside he felt on edge and on gaurd to the point that he took his life to get away from the voices in his head. U said so yourself jail makes or breaks u, but that does not make it okay. Maybe once u realize that the criminal justice system is a serious issue to worry about will u think otherwise


Stay Informed