Kalief Browder’s Death Raises Bigger Questions Than Bail Reform

Photo by Bob Jagandork (Common Dreams).

Photo by Bob Jagandork (Common Dreams).

In New York City everyone charges around with important things to do all day, and individual tragedies rarely seep into our lives. Few stories, however, are more moving than the suicide of Kalief Browder, the 22-year old who never recovered from the physical and psychological brutalization he suffered during three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial. (The original New Yorker piece about Kalief was written by Jennifer Gonnerman.) Kalief was sent to Rikers because his family couldn’t afford a $3,000 bail, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has since called for bail reform. But bail reform isn’t enough. We need policing reform, prosecution reform, prison reform; we need this to be a moment we reevaluate our entire broken criminal justice system. My experience with the New York City criminal justice system has been limited, but enough to observe the relentless fear and confusion it inspires long before the gates of Rikers Island.



Let’s start small: we need to reform is our ticketing system. It might sound trite, but many first touches with the criminal justice system are pink summonses issued for violations such as marijuana possession, biking on the sidewalk, speeding, even protesting. Summonses are handed out on small, cluttered pieces of paper with illegible writing; I’ve seen violations where a person’s court appearance date is indecipherable. In 2015, court dates should also be emailed or left as a voicemail for defendants. Perhaps these documents should be printed on site, rather than handwritten. The amateurishness of these tickets surely contributes to their non-compliance rates.

The consequence of failing to respond to a summons is that a warrant will be issued for a person’s arrest, a warrant that lasts forever.As with summonses, individuals should receive notifications that warrants have been issued for their arrests. Many New Yorkers have no idea – here’s one website where you can check yourself. That means during their next contact with police, running those peoples’ licenses will lead to an arrest, and a 24-48 hour incarceration in one of New York City’s holding cells, such as the infamous “Tombs” of Manhattan. The Tombs is a dreadful place where individuals with the most minor offenses are housed 30 to a cell with junkies and violent arrestees, often with broken toilets and water fountains. Nothing is ever done about these conditions because they are temporary, and no one is incentivized to do anything about them.

Properly contesting a summons is less traumatic, but still a deflating experience. After hours of waiting in lines and silent church pews, defendants have literally seconds to explain their case before the judge makes a ruling. Though these judgments are relatively innocuous, like ACDs (essentially a six month probation) or a $50 fine, first timers are often appalled at the process. When very busy friends ask me for advice, I am honest: contesting violations, even if you are innocent, is a bad use of time under our current system. Forget justice, this is Centre Street. Pay the fine and move on. At the least, the court system should make advocates available to explain the process and legal options to individuals in the courthouse building, before they have to stand before the judge.

Bail Hearings

Arrested defendants emerge from holding cells after 24-48 hours, sleepless and dehydrated, having met their public defenders for a few hurried minutes, to appear for bail hearings. This was the pivotal moment in Kalief Browder’s life.

Bail is supposed to be measured against the likelihood of a defendant being a flight risk- a murder defendant fleeing the country, for example. For minor crimes, the justification is less clear, and the criteria are heavily classist. A defense attorney is supposed to highlight the defendant’s job or schooling and family ties to New York City. A prosecutor will highlight a defendant’s previous record, failure to respond to summonses, and lack of job or apartment lease. This back and forth saddled Kalief, a 16-year-old accused of stealing a backpack, with a $3,000 bail, which his family was unable to pay. The excellent New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer has more on what went wrong in Kalief’s particular case.

If we want real “bail reform” we need prosecutor reform. Mayor de Blasio and the City Council is discussing “bail funds” that would allow defendants to borrow some levels of money to make bail. The shortcoming of such proposals is that it will inevitably separate the “good” accused from “bad” accused. Kalief was charged with stealing a backpack, something that probably would not be included in the types of crimes eligible for the bail fund. This type of reform misses the point.

The real issue is that prosecutors are demanding high bails. It is very rare for judges to set high bails unless prosecutors are actively pushing for them. These bails repeatedly send people to Rikers Island for weeks, months, even years, without convicting them of crimes. District attorneys must set the tone on demanding reasonable bails, and releasing more people without bails at all.

While we are discussing prosecutors, we must reform their delay tactics that prevents justice from being served. If a person pleads not guilty to a crime at a bail hearing, their next hearing date is scheduled for a month later. A defendant will have to take off a whole morning to sit in court for his name to be called. At that time, a prosecutor will likely ask for more time, thus moving the case a month down the line. This is permitted to go on for at least 90 days, if not longer, meaning someone fighting for his innocence on a minor charge might need to appear in court four or five times just to resolve his case. This is highly discouraging, and a major reason innocent people plead guilty to minor offenses. These delays played a large part in Kalief’s long detention at Rikers.

Finally, the rest of New York’s district attorneys need to follow Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson’s pledge not to prosecute marijuana possession. In 2015, it is incredibly backwards the amount of resources our criminal justice devoted to prosecuting marijuana, especially when Police Commissioner Bratton is specifically asking for a reduction in low-level marijuana arrests. If prosecutors stop prosecuting those arrests, the police will actually stop making them.

Rikers Island

Rikers is a dismal place. There is no way to sugarcoat what it is: a series of heavily guarded cages where large groups of men and women are thrown together for unknown periods of time. But high school kids shouldn’t be there in the first place. They wouldn’t be if New York State changed its policy of charging 16 and 17-year-olds as adults, a practice shared only by North Carolina in the United States. Governor Cuomo has said all the right things about his effort to “Raise the Age” to 18, but, as usual, his Republican allies in the State Senate are holding up the bill, which will pass or fail in the next two weeks.

I spent my Sunday mornings on Rikers Island for three years working with incarcerated juveniles, and despondency and depression clouded the air. Few had regular contact with their lawyers, or knew much at all about their cases. While Kalief’s three-year wait was extreme, the long separations from home in these heartless conditions while awaiting trial led to depression. My own miserable experience dealing with Rikers security over access week after week made me especially sympathetic to visiting families, who can count on well over an hour to reach the Rikers Island bridge, and at least that long to process through security.

The conditions on Rikers Island are incredibly stressful for prisoners, especially young people and those with mental health problems, as well as guards, who are expected to constantly handle crises with minimal training. These problems are well documented, and a subject of Justice Department inquiry.

The de Blasio administration has pledged to reform Rikers, and his Department of Corrections Commissioner, Joseph Ponte, has an excellent reputation, but the simplest reform is to send fewer people there. Another crucial reform would be moving more inmates to community jails, where families could actually visit them. NIMBY groups might resist, but locking up the accused out of sight and out of mind is not the mark of an enlightened society.

In summary, our criminal justice system is heartless and broken in matters large and small. That is dangerous for democracy. Efforts to prevent a tragedy like the death of Kalief Browder from happening again need to look not only at “bail reform” and improving conditions on Rikers Island, but the flaws in our police system, summons process and district attorney offices. We have a long way to go, but acknowledging these problems is the first step to fixing them.


Janos is an attorney, writer and activist. To read more about New York City history and current events, follow Janos.nyc on Twitter and Facebook.

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