On May 15, 2010, Kalief Browder was not yet 17 years old. He lived in the Bronx, near the zoo, with his adoptive mother.
He was on his way home from a party with his friend when police stopped him. They were responding to a call that two black men had stolen a backpack containing among other things, an iPod touch, a camera, and $700. I want you to keep the value of this backpack in your mind throughout this story and weigh it against what happened to him.
Kalief and his friend were searched, and the backpack was not found. Nevertheless he was arrested and taken to the police station. What he didn’t know is that he wouldn’t go home for three more years. He was charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. His bail was set at $3,000. His family borrowed the money from a neighbor and attempted to post bail, but were informed that because he was on probation for a prior incident, posting bail would not allow him to be released.
Kalief was taken to Riker’s Island to await trial.
Kalief’s trial date was pushed back repeatedly. From January 28th 2011, it was pushed back to June 23rd, to August 24th, to November 4th, to December 2nd, to January 3rd, to June 29th, to September 28th, and on and on. “the People not ready” came the refrain, over and over again.
Over this time, prosecutors repeatedly offered Kalief plea bargains. Plea bargains are tools used by prosecutors to reduce their workload. If a defendant will only save the court’s time and plead guilty, they would reduce the sentence. Kalief was offered three and a half years for his guilty plea. Later two and a half years. Kalief refused, insisting on a trial. He had done nothing wrong. Did his innocence mean nothing?
On March 13th, TWO THOUSAND AND THIRTEEN, Kalief appeared before a judge. The judge offered him another bargain. If he plead guilty, the sentence would be 16 months.
By this time had now spent 1038 (34 months, 3 days) days imprisoned, innocent until proven guilty of the crime of stealing a backpack with a probable total value of less than $1000. He was being offered consideration for time served. He could go home that SAME DAY, if ONLY he would stand before God and the People and say “I did wrong”
Kalief refused. “I did not do it. I’m all right…I want to go to trial.”
May 29th, 2013. Kalief’s court case has now been moved THIRTY times. The man who had accused him of the theft had moved to Mexico. The District Attorney had no case, and motioned to drop all charges. “Without the Complainant, we are unable to meet our burden of proof at trial”, they said. Kalief was free. What had it cost him?
It cost him three years and nineteen days of hell. Of being treated like a criminal Of living like an animal. Of being beat on by prison gangs and prison guards. He spent over two years total in solitary confinement. He tried to take his own life while in jail on multiple occasions.
It cost him his 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays. It cost him Christmases. It cost him his high school graduation. It cost him all the things we hope our kids get to grow up with.
After he was released, Kalief tried to pick up his life and move forward. He got his G.E.D. He enrolled in community college and finished his first semester with a GPA of 3.56. He started working to tutor math for G.E.D. prep. But he couldn’t move past the trauma of his confinement. “Being home is way better than being in jail, but in my mind right now I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.” He tried to take his own life on more than one occasion. On June 6th, 2015, he succeeded. He was 22 years old.
Kalief Browder’s case spurred a series of pushes for justice reform in New York, and garnered national attention. His family eventually received a settlement from the City.
But he never got to live his life. It was taken from him by a corrupt justice system.
His life mattered.
You can learn more about Kalief’s story from this New Yorker article written in 2014: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/06/before-the-law
And from the Netflix documentary “Time: the Kalief Browder Story.”
You can learn more about plea bargains and the threat of inflated sentencing to punish people who opt to go to trial in the YouTube video down below.
Written by Peter Wantanabe