Kalief Browder’s story makes a strong case for bail reform

Legislative Gazette photo
From left, Assemblyman Dan Quart, Akeem Browder, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, and Senator Jessica Ramos holding Rafael, Akeem Browder’s son and Kalief Browder’s nephew.

More than 100 supporters of the state’s new “cashless bail” laws met with state lawmakers to stand their ground against bail reform rollbacks, which went into effect January 1.

The group — led by the brother of Kalief Browder, whose story helped spur bail reform in New York state — held a rally inside the Capitol before splitting up and meeting with state legislators in smaller groups.

Lawmakers have been grappling this session with the new pre-trial justice reforms, which releases most defendants, except those who commit violent felonies and other serious crimes.

Republican lawmakers, police and prosecutors have been pushing for a repeal of the bail reforms while news media have been reporting stories of repeat offenses by those who are arrested, processed and let free. A new Siena poll released earlier this week shows that 59 percent of all voters statewide call the bail reforms “bad for New York.”

But progressive lawmakers who support the pre-trial justice reforms are asking for more time and hard data before the law is changed or repealed. They say the old bail system punished poor New Yorkers who awaited their trial in jail, often losing their jobs, suffering abuse behind bars or becoming alienated from their friends and family.

To help make that case, Akeem Browder spoke about his brother Kalief.

In 2010, Browder was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island because his family could not afford to pay his $3,000 bail.

Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, while he waited more than a year for his initial trial. He was sent to solitary confinement multiple times for getting into physical altercations, set off by him throwing a shoe, in one case.

In solitary confinement, Browder was afforded less rights than other inmates. He was not allowed to leave his cell as frequently as other inmates, and when he did he was handcuffed and strip-searched.

According to an article in the New Yorker magazine, Browder was also physically assaulted by police officers on Rikers Island.

Spending time in Rikers Island and in solitary confinement permanently changed Browder, his family said. In 2012, he eventually attempted suicide in solitary confinement. After that, he attempted suicide until his release.

In May of 2013, after 31 court days, Browder’s case was finally dismissed. It never saw a jury nor a verdict.

The case against Browder was eventually dropped, but the damage was done. Browder experienced paranoia, depression and trauma because of the time he spent in Rikers, eventually taking his own life in his own home in 2015.

“[Kalief’s charges were considered] non-violent yet he stayed in jail for three years,” Akeem Browder told the Legislative Gazette after the rally. “Bail reform would have gotten him out, at least so that he was not traumatized from being on a place like Rikers Island.”

Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, the sponsor of the bail reform bill, shared how her cousin, Ivory Rolling, died from a seizure in Rikers Island awaiting trial because he could not make bail.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of our beloved Kalief Browder [and we’re] standing on the shoulders of people who paid the ultimate price just waiting for their day in court,” said Walker.

Since the first week of January, bail reform and its relation to public safety has been one of the most contentious issues among lawmakers and stakeholders.

According to a list of news stories compiled by Republican legislators, there have been more than 100 cases of serious crimes such as menacing, manslaughter, bank robbery, strangulation and endangering the welfare of a child committed by defendants released without bail. Opponents point to these cases to prove that bail reform is releasing dangerous criminals onto the streets.

But cashless bail supporters say this is fear mongering on the part of the news media.

“If people really look at those cases and what would have happened prior to bail reform. Guess what? The exact same outcome,” said Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, D-Jackson Heights.

Cruz added that, if those on the opposition presented their concerns about bail reform six months from now, after more data is collected, she would consider amending the law.

Bail rollback legislation has been discussed at press conferences and rallies, and also behind closed doors. Some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, are considering ways to give judges more discretion during pre-tiral proceedings, such as bail, on a case-by-case basis.

When writing the current statute, the idea of granting discretion to judges to either incarcerate or monitor defendants based on their dangerousness was negotiated, but ultimately rejected.

“What was happening in the courtroom … was that judges and prosecutors were using subjective criteria, on who was, and who was not, a danger to the community,” said Assemblyman Dan Quart, D-Upper East Side. “Those subjective biases lead to huge populations of people being detained pre-trial, disproportionately people of color. That’s the problem.”

Those in favor of the current laws believe that negative opinions are being caused by fear-mongering and “cherry-picking” of stories about repeat offenders by district attorneys, prosecutors and law enforcement.

“If you want to cherry pick something, cherry pick my case, cherry pick Kalief Browder’s case. Cherry pick these cases where people are suffering,” said Harvey Murphy, a community organizer from Just Leadership USA.

Lawmakers and advocates remain confident that the bail reform laws, which are less than two months old, are working.

“We cannot ignore the countless, the tens of thousands that we have helped with [bail reform], said Akeem Browder.

Darryl Herring, an activist from Vocal-NY, who was incarcerated for 18 months and lost his home, added: “Look at all the families that are still together, who have not lost their homes [unlike] me and other people.”

Advocates for bail reform are not only standing their ground against rollbacks but are also pushing for programs that would prevent people from re-committing crimes.

“Bail reform is not my mission, it’s a necessary evil. We don’t want jail in the first place. We need programs in our communities [like mental health programs] that are offered to communities of wealth,” said Browder.