Kalief Browder was a young man arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack on May 15, 2010, which he denied doing and refused to be bullied into a plea bargain even at the behest of his public defender, even if he could go home after pleading guilty to a crime he didn’t commit. He chose his honor and integrity and his bail was set at $3,000 but his family was too poor to raise it immediately after his arrest. His mother eventually had the money for the bail, but by then it was useless because felony charges have been filed against him and because he was already on probation for another juvenile misdemeanor, which then makes him ineligible for bail. So, if his mother was able to provide the bail prior to the filing of the new felony charges, this ‘technicality’ of the law wouldn’t have mattered. So off he went to Rikers prison to await his trial. He was in prison for over 3 years without a conviction and his charges were eventually dropped when the victim of the theft disappeared and reportedly went back to Mexico. Jennifer Gonnerman of The New Yorker wrote a piece detailing the timeline of his alleged crime and the delays that resulted to him being in prison for over 3 years of which roughly 2 years were spent in solitary confinement. 

KaliefBrowder

During his time in prison he was brutalized by the prison guards and was held in solitary confinement for long periods of time. During his time in the ‘box’ he was denied food – up to 4 consecutive meals at once, regularly beaten, thrown to the ground, brutalized physically and emotionally. When he returned home he tried to resume his life and made his plight known to others so that other prisoners won’t suffer the same kind of abuse, he gave a detailed interview to Jennifer Gonnerman of The New Yorker. But it all got to be too much and he ended his life on June 6, 2015 in his mother’s home.  How has the criminal justice system come to this? How has this country come to this? Browder was only a suspect awaiting trial, he wasn’t even convicted and it wouldn’t have made a difference if he were convicted as prisoners have rights too. When you hear stories like this about a poor black boy being mistreated, you have to beg the question of what if he were white and from a family of some means (If the family had means he wouldn’t be there but for argument’s sake let’s say the parents chose to not bail him out to teach him tough love), would the prison guards treat him differently? Would it then compel them to treat him like a human being? The prison conditions described do not sound like a prison from the United States of America, it sounds like some horror prison from a Third World country, where prisoners convicted or not have no rights and are treated less than human.

This country was founded on principles of due process, where the state has to meet the burden of proof to convict a person and not the other way around. Citizens have a right to a speedy trial yet Kalief Browder’s motion for a speedy trial was delayed over and over again, he was told that he didn’t meet the requirement for speedy trial. While all this was going on, he languished in Rikers, a teenager, under the legal adult age, rotting in prison awaiting a trial for stealing a backpack. Let’s rue over that ladies and gentlemen, he sat in prison for 3 years, most of which was in solitary confinement, for stealing a backpack! If this isn’t the new definition insanity, I don’t know what is. Of course, no one took any direct responsibility, blaming the system backlog and budget shortages, he was arrested in the Bronx area of New York, notorious for its backlog of cases. There aren’t simply enough court hours and judges to process each of these cases quickly. While that may be well and true, no one has looked into why the Bronx specifically is so backlogged, in comparison to other New York boroughs. Are there more criminals in the Bronx than say Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island or (gasp) Manhattan? Of the 5 boroughs of New York City, the Bronx is the most underprivileged, underserved, the one borough that didn’t go through the gentrification that’s been going on in the other boroughs, and also as unedifying as it is to say it, the most brown and black, which means it’s policed more heavily. More police presence means more arrests, which leads to more prosecutions and backlog. The bail bond system is also punitive to poor people, it either cleans them out financially or if defendant’s family can’t raise the bail, they will have no choice but to await trial in prison. If they can raise the money, that money could have gone to hiring a defense attorney instead of bail.

Most indigent defendants must use public defenders for their representation. Most legal aid offices are woefully underfunded and overworked, some public defenders have over one hundred active cases on their desks at the same time, there is no way for any attorney to adequately prepare for hundreds of cases that are happening at once. So, when the opportunity presents, they encourage their clients to take a plea bargain deal, without even doing research to see if their defendant is guilty of the crime they are being accused of, so they ask their client to take the deal the prosecutor is offering so they can close their case and move on the next one. It’s not a matter of public defenders have poor lawyering skills or that they don’t have the best interest of their clients at heart, it’s that there is simply not enough time, money and manpower for them to prepare for the case in a way that best serves the defendant.

To operate a legal system by due process where defendants have the right to face their accusers in court is a laborious and time consuming one. It requires good legal skills, expertise and lots of time on the part of the courts and the persons involved in the legal system (judges, attorneys, investigators), all of which are on short supply, therefore our legal system is not designed for handling mass arrests and charges that are brought from those arrests and then presuming that every charge that’s been brought against a person has the opportunity to face their accuser in court, hence the plea bargaining system was introduced and often utilized, over 90% of criminal cases end in the defendant pleading guilty to a lesser crime and serving a lesser punishment. And that would be fine if it were done of the defendant’s own volition to spare the court or himself further expense of bringing a trial to court which would yield the same result. Plea bargaining is a win win for everyone involved if the circumstances are right. It’s a win for the prosecutors who get to count it as a ‘win’ or ‘conviction’ and the defendant can get a lesser sentence for a lesser crime.

However, in the cases of indigent defendants, the plea bargain has been their downfall. If they plead guilty to a lesser crime and even just get probation instead of jail time, they would then have a record, and that record will follow them for the rest of their lives (some lesser misdemeanors can be expunged after the sentence or probation has been successfully completed without committing more crimes during the process, but the cost of that is considerable) affecting their ability to get jobs, qualify for education grants, renting an apartment, everything. Certain crimes will shut defendants out of certain industries forever, such as crimes involving theft (great or small) will automatically disqualify one from any financial sector jobs. The prison population is overwhelmingly black and brown, which begs the question that are black or brown people more criminal than their white counterparts? No, this is not the case as data I cited from my previous post indicates, it’s that brown and black and poorer neighborhoods which are associated with higher crime rates are policed more rigorously while residents of leafy suburbs are left to their own devices. This is especially true in drug use among blacks and whites, white people use drugs at the same rates as white people, but black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use. The War on Drugs has recently been renamed the War on the Poor as poor people are the ones that are most affected under the mandatory drug sentences.

The logic always went that if a criminal justice system is tough on crime, even petty crime, it will deter crime, because people don’t want to get arrested and go to jail for small crimes (like stealing a backpack). This is also true in the developing and third world, they impose harsh sentences on crimes in the hopes that it will deter the masses from committing them. In many Southeast Asian countries, drug dealers and smugglers get the death penalty or lengthy prison sentences but drug use, smuggling and dealing hasn’t really decreased by much. Usually these tough drug laws affect the low rung dealers, never the kingpins, kingpins get streetrunners to do their dirty work and they wash their hands of the crime but keep all the profits and the same goes for the War on Drugs in the US. The people that are most severely impacted by mandatory drug sentencing are not the big time dealers, they are always the middlemen, the street hustlers, young lost directionless kids who are locked up a long time for petty drug crimes (petty in comparison to what their bosses do).

Analysts and critics who talk about the court backlog speak from surface and superficial level. The high number of backlogs in The Bronx is because there aren’t enough judges and prosecutors and public defendants to try the cases, but what’s not talked about is why are the police arresting so many people for such petty crimes which don’t get resolved for years? And why is Kalief Browder, a child, a 16 year old given a bail amount for stealing a backpack? He’s 16, it’s easy to establish whether he’s got a passport or not, and his family is poor to go any place so he’s not a flight risk, he lives at home with his mother, he’s in school, he has close ties to the community, i.e. his family and school friends, he’s not a known gang member or career criminal (he’s got a juvie record for operating an unauthorized vehicle – tantamount to teenage hijinks) so why was he not released on his own recognizance and if he were to miss his court dates then further charges can be added. Was it necessary to lock up a 16 year for allegedly stealing a backpack?

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was credited for cleaning up the city, he cleaned up Times Square, New York City Public Library which was an open drug market at one point, instituted street block policing which is still in effect today, which is basically when citizens see constant police presence on the streets, they are less likely to commit crimes so openly and brazenly. And yes, over time, the pimps and working girls moved out of Times Square to New Jersey. Another one of Guiliani’s legacy with the help of Police Commissioner William Bratton was what they called ‘broken window policing’ meaning the police would arrest people on seemingly petty crimes compared to the really serious crimes such as murder, rape and robbery and this was to deter from committing small crimes such as defacing public walls, breaking windows, littering etc. and the byproduct of this is also a cleaner, safer and better looking community. Of course, the now notorious stop-and-frisk was instituted as well as part of the overall effort to clean up the city. These practices were needed in the 1990s to bring down the crime wave in New York City but as crime went down and life went back to normal, it was not necessary for the police to arrest and charge every citizen (adult or child) that is misbehaving.

In Kalief Browder’s case, if a victim accused Browder of stealing his backpack, the police of course should arrest Browder, but instead of putting him through the grinder (bail hearing, set court date etc), police departments should do a quick investigation and see if he stole said backpack. What are the contents of the backpack? Did Browder possess the contents of said backpack, did any valuables from the said backpack end up in pawn shops? For a 16 year old with no car it’s fairly easy to find out if he really stole the backpack. It didn’t need to take 3 years while Browder was being beaten, punched and raped in jail to for the charges to be dropped because the victim couldn’t be located. The whole thing from beginning to end is just insane and almost unbelievable that it’s a case from the United States of America, a place where due process is the founding principle of our criminal justice system. Furthermore, since the US criminal justice system is setup in the way that it is now, perhaps it’s not good practice for police to arrest people for anything and everything. It’s not to say that police should look the other way when a crime is being a committed, but use good sound judgement and have the ability to discern what is a serious crime that deserves arrest and what should be a slap on the wrist. It’s so easy to blame the defendants, they shouldn’t have been hanging out in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. They shouldn’t have been selling loose cigarettes, they shouldn’t have ran when they were pulled over, that’s what caused their demise or predicament, not the rough police treatment or the criminal justice system. If, as a society and criminal justice system is how we respond to suspects who are being arrested, then we are no better than a third world country’s criminal justice system, the US will have no right to ‘lecture’ others about human rights and human dignity as we failed our own 16 year old child.

One thought on “RIP Kalief Browder: A Catalyst for Change in the Criminal Justice System

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