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No Bail, Less Hope: The Death of Kalief Browder

A system that kept a teenager in Rikers for three years.

Before it was about the suicide of a tormented young man, before it was about the crippling effects of prolonged solitary confinement, before it was about the Dickensian court process that kept him awaiting trial for three years, the story of Kalief Browder was about bail.

Kalief Browder was jailed because he couldn’t pay $3,000.

Kalief Browder in July 2014.

That’s the bail amount a judge first set back in 2010, after Browder was arrested at age 16 and charged with stealing a backpack. His family was unable to raise the money, so he was sent to Rikers Island, where he was held for the next three years before prosecutors in the Bronx decided to dismiss the charges. But once he was in the system, and despite efforts by his lawyer, even the initial bail offer was denied him.

Violence and long stints in solitary defined Browder’s experience at Rikers, as detailed in an October 2014 profile in The New Yorker. “I’m not all right. I’m messed up,” Browder told the magazine after his release. The story sparked outrage and promises from city officials to reform Rikers, but for Browder, the damage had been done. He hanged himself on Saturday. He was 22.

Browder, who insisted on his innocence, sat in jail initially because his family could not afford to post bail. About two-thirds of America’s jail population — 450,000 people — are behind bars awaiting trial. And five out of six of those people are in jail because they could not afford bail or because a bail agent declined to post a bond.

Stuck in jail and without easy access to his lawyer, Browder was at a disadvantage in preparing a defense. He was also at the mercy of prosecutors, who offered to reduce his jail time or release him, but only if he pleaded guilty, an option he refused.

Such circumstances aren’t uncommon at Rikers, said Bryanne Hammill, a member of the Board of Correction who leads its committee on adolescents. “With regards to the adolescent and young adults I talk to and meet, many of them are in on low-level charges but with bail set,” said Hamill. “And bail essentially results in an incarceration because they nor their family have the financial wherewithal to post any bail.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the Browder case on Monday, in response to a question at an unrelated news conference.

“There’s just no reason that someone should be held for a long period of time if they can’t pay bail,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told the New York Observer. “[W]e need some type of bail reform,” de Blasio said, but he wasn’t specific about what type of reform, according to the Observer. “I deeply wish we hadn’t lost him — but he did not die in vain.”

Across the country, a growing number of states are moving away from systems that require the exchange of money for jail release. New Jersey recently passed a bail-reform package that established a government-run pretrial services agency. It will use a “risk score” to determine a defendant’s likelihood to flee and help judges determine whether someone can be released without financial conditions.

On July 28, 2010, 74 days after Browder entered Rikers, he appeared before a judge and pleaded not guilty. He wanted to go to trial. But this wasn’t Browder’s first run-in with the law. At the time of his arrest for the stolen backpack, he was on probation in an earlier case, so the new charge was a violation of his probation. For that reason, the judge remanded him without bail, meaning that even if his family could have raised enough money, paying for his release was no longer an option. Browder’s public defender said he made multiple bail applications over the subsequent years that were repeatedly denied because of the probation violation.

“Judges end up looking at folks who are in [jail] as more likely to be guilty, and so do grand juries,” said Peter Goldberg, executive director for the Brooklyn Bail Fund, an organization that raises money for indigent misdemeanor defendants.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, of the Pretrial Justice Institute, which advocates bail reform nationally, said: “It’s a very typical story with an incredibly tragic outcome. That state said his freedom had a cost. Was it worth $3,000?”