One year later, the tragic suicide of Kalief Browder continues to serve as a horrific symbol of New York City’s criminal justice system’s dysfunction. After being arrested at age 16 for the alleged theft of a backpack, Kalief waited three years on Rikers Island without trial, only to have the charges against him eventually dropped. Two years after being released, he took his own life at his family’s home in the Bronx. His story has galvanized calls for criminal justice reform within the city, particularly from Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose recent initiatives have included the prohibited use of solitary confinement for those 21 and under.
Beyond addressing the physical and emotional abuse Kalief faced at Rikers, insufficient attention has been given to the reason he was sent there in the first place: the inability to post a $3,000 bail.
Each year in New York City, 50,000 people are detained due to simply lacking the financial means that could ensure their freedom. If each person eligible for bail at Rikers Island could afford it, the complex would decrease in population by 40%. More than half of the people held in pretrial detention are there because they could not pay bail of $2,500 or less, while only 15% of defendants can afford bail when it is under $500, as it is in one third of nonfelony cases.
Pretrial detention is especially disturbing considering that the highest proportions of individuals are held on a misdemeanor charge. Detaining people because of non-threatening crimes like petty shoplifting, drinking alcohol in public, or jumping a train turnstile creates a host of implications tremendously disproportionate to the non-threatening nature of the alleged crimes. What could be settled by few hundred dollars, or a trial within a matter of days, ultimately holds the power to derail entire lives. For people who are already in a vulnerable position, detention may be more likely to lead to lost employment, housing, and child custody. In Kalief’s case, the alleged theft of a backpack cost him the most formidable years of his adolescence, his physical and mental wellbeing, and eventually, his life.
Individuals facing an interminable stay in jail are much more likely to accept a plea deal regardless of whether or not they are guilty. If a case does go to trial, the ability to make bail has been shown to be the most important factor in determining not only the outcome of the case, but the severity of the sentence if an individual is found guilty. Often times, like in Kalief’s situation where the charges were ultimately dismissed, the amount of time an individual spends in pretrial detention often exceeds any jail time they would have been sentenced to if convicted. Inequities within the bail system are a critical link between unfair policing practices and the amply documented racial and socioeconomic disparities in the country’s incarcerated population.
The focus on money as a mechanism for pretrial release ignores strategies that have proven effective, such as risk assessment tools and community supervision programs. These have been successful in not only pilot programs within the city, but in many other jurisdictions around the country. Bail was never intended to reduce crimes, and it shows no effectiveness in doing so. For what it aims – simply to ensure people return for their trials, there are numerous other strategies that prove more efficient, equitable, and consistent with the assumption of innocence guaranteed by the law.
The need for comprehensive bail reform within New York City for low-level and low-income defendants is patently obvious. With public sentiment and critical will reaching a crucial juncture, it also appears very possible. On a national level, a federal bill to reduce the use of money bail has recently been proposed for the first time. While the de Blasio administration has recently taken steps to reduce arrests for certain low-level offenses and cut court processing times, the fundamental issue of monetizing pretrial freedom remains blatantly unaddressed at the city level. This represents a common phenomenon within criminal justice reform; that within a cycle of names and stories, efforts often take small steps to address vast and critical problems, and then are prematurely applauded as successes.
The fact that the solitary ban was the only legislation to come out of Kalief’s story is insulting, as his death represents a failure of the justice system in countless other areas. Collectively we must ask ourselves why we are only able to humanize a select handful of the millions of stories of people involved within our justice system, and how this ultimately may lead to reform efforts that are equally as selective in their nature. Lasting reform efforts require recognition that the system is not broken or malfunctioning, but that it is working exactly as intended. With lives hanging in the balance, there is no time for half-measures.