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 After 74 days of incarceration, bail was revoked altogether.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

I don't care what race or nationality you are, FAIR IS FAIR! This young man was wrongfully held. As a Veteran, I know the first hand accounts of PTSD. The state of New York is undeniably at fault for his death and his family has every right to sue them for any amount, and should receive it.


Thank you for pointing out what should be obvious: PTSD.

My god, this poor child suffered. How shameful this is.

I myself am all for seeing prosecutors criminally punished when they obstruct justice like in this case. They violated this child's constitutional rights, and he lost his life because of it. Seems there ought to be severe penalties for such crimes committed by those who call themselves officers of the courts.

Please wake up, America. Injustice hurts us all. We are all diminished by crimes against the innocent. We are supposed to be better than this.

Black lives Mat...

Black Lives Matter, I was asked to watch this documentary by my son, he was outraged when he saw some of the things he saw happening to this young man, and no one did a thing to help him. A lot of the things happened to Kalief happened to my son while he was in incarcerated for 10 yrs, as a 17yr old in an adult prison, My son and 3 other boys robbed a house, the other 3 boys were let go with no charges, My son received 10yrs. I can relate to a lot of what Kalief mother had to go though. With trying to get bail and decent representation. He is hard when you don't have the money. But for the state of New York to take an place this young man in Rikers was wrong, And to keep in confinement for as long as they did. I wonder to the officers at Rikers jail, how would they feel if someone toke them and locked them away for days at a time. With no food.or water. And constantly beaten. Of course he is going to come out messed up he was abused mentally and physically his entire time there. A lot of things that goes on behind the doors in prisons and Jails are really bad. A lot of these type of stories are never told, because the young men that go though these type of situations just want to forget and go on with life. They want to try and live a normal life outside the jail cells they were held in for so many years. To be this young and to have go though such a horrific thing like Rikers. Of course he will never be the same he had to grow up really fast. My son has been home for 4 years now we went though a lot with him trying to fit in he did not know how to use a cell phone, and was surprised to see television on gas pumps. Watching him go though so many different things, saying he needed to go back to jail cause he didn't fit in on the outside.My Family and I had to keep telling him he is better then what he was labeled when was locked up or put in solitary confinement. My heart goes out to his family and loves ones. But the saying black lives Matter I say every life matters. Every one matters. Not matter what you skin color is. For the one guy that server 14 yrs, all I can say to you is that you probably was grown or over 18 when you went into and you are right, prison will make you or break you if you mind set is right, but at 16 or 17 was you mindset right, probably not. Everyone goes though things different. So to say he was weak i disagree. A child that was thrown in a grown mans world. He was not put is a place where there was others his age. He was put in a place that is one of the worst place to be placed and majority of people are grown men. So of course he is going to broken this is Rikers we are talking about. And bad enough it was over a backpack, REALLY? I could go on and on with this but i am going to stop here. I pray that every one remembers this was a young kid put in an adult situation, He did the best he could do with what he knew. Putting Kids in adult jails/ prisons is not the answer. May God have mercy on every one of officers that did this young man wrong. I would hate to see the outcome when you have to answer to God, for this life that was taken away over a backpack.


Hi, can you update this article, bail was initially set at $3000 but a few days later he was denied bail because he was on probation for joy riding in an ice cream truck (kids antics). No amount of money could get him out, so his only option was to wait in jail until his trial. It is a travesty.


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