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 After 74 days of incarceration, bail was revoked altogether.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

Add a comment (68)
Read the Terms of Use

Kyle

So sad, glad ACLU stepped up so incidents like this don't go in vain.

Kyle

So sad, glad ACLU stepped up so incidents like this don't go in vain.

Venus Wilson

The problem is also oversight of the jails and the prison guards. When you lock people up and the prisons are for profit it allows for all kinds of abuse. A pox on Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg. They should all have to spend time in prison maybe if they had first hand knowledge they would finally start to change things. Stop and frisk more of Americas racism run amok. Now we have Potus who is nothing but a racist along with his supporters. The true racist face of America through him is on display for the rest of the world to see. In case they didn't already know. I hate the racism in this country and the belief that one persons belief that they are better than someone else. There but for the grace of God go I. Stop the hate. Black lives matter! As a former servicewoman I served my country maybe we should all start to refuse to participate in this country's bullshit. Take our dollars and spend our money in our own stores. Maybe we should segregate ourselves and start to build up our own communities again and we can have a nation within a nation. I see revolution on the horizon and it won't be televised.

Betty

I totally agree the prison system parole and probation are designed to fail and make criminals even better criminals. Our government who was designed for the people by the people has run unchecked and out of control. I have a son in this so called prison system that has stage 3 Melinoma cancer is supposed to be receiving treatment but no one is checking to see this is happening. They refuse the prison system to release information to me his mother about any doctors that are seeing him cutting on him. Saying it is a security risk. Really!!!!!! That is a pathetic excuse over used to say we are doing nothing and nothing you can do about it. I was even told by the assistant warden that 1000's of people die in prisons every day. WTF and we put these people in charge of humans that are not treated according to there crime but rather a number and nothing more. Some thing has to be done and it starts with you and me. Money or no money we all have a voice and rather directly affected or not they are humans and see be to be treated as such. It's unfortunate that my son is serving less than 18 months and if we are lucky will make it out alive only to be so sick and past the ability to fight this cancer and left for his loved ones to anguish over his pain and suffering. It's starts with people carryibg about or people no matter the color or social status.

Anonymous

By the way John bet you have your KKK card and membership you idiot. Maybe you should watch it again you sure missed some things. I would like to see you in that position and what would happen to you. Suggestion check out the Stanford Experiment in the early 70's.

Anonymous

By the way John bet you have your KKK card and membership you idiot. Maybe you should watch it again you sure missed some things. I would like to see you in that position and what would happen to you. Suggestion check out the Stanford Experiment in the early 70's.

Anonymous

By the way John bet you have your KKK card and membership you idiot. Maybe you should watch it again you sure missed some things. I would like to see you in that position and what would happen to you. Suggestion check out the Stanford Experiment in the early 70's.

Anonymous

His story is one of many, his story actually was able to be heard but still nothing is/ was done. No amount of money can bring him back. They hate us, once they see the color of your skin that determines your fate.

Dennis G. Davis

Outrageous: The NY State governor and legislature are culpable in his death and the damage to other inmates for not tightening up the law governing the prosecutions requirement to present a case. That 'be ready' loophole is a violation of the sixth Amendment to the US Constitution. Further I can see this loophole as a means to not fund the criminal justice system to the level necessary to provide NYC residents with their day in court. Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and not use this system as a means to lock innocent people into a life of poverty - which is what a criminal conviction record does to anyone in America. Typical American response - people have to loose their lives and the taxpayers pay civil court fines before there is a change. I want to know what Governor Cuomo or Mayor DeBlasio are actually doing to save innocent people from torture?

Dennis G Davis

Here is what de Blasio and NYC are doing - they already stopped kids under 21 from being put in solitary confinement http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/471-15/mayor-de-blasio-17-8...

Pages

Sign Up for Breaking News