Imagine being young, vulnerable, and facing criminal charges for a crime you didn’t commit. The justice system sees you as nothing more than a statistic. Your case is not worth their time and resources. The question of your innocence is actually of little interest to the DA’s office. You are just another file on top of an endless stack of others. Their only goal is to move your paperwork from their stack to someone else’s.
Before you are even given the chance to adequately defend yourself in court, you are given two options: continue to maintain your innocence and face the full consequences of the legal system or agree to a reduced sentence by accepting a plea deal and admitting guilt.
This was the choice given to sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder. But unlike so many others in the same position, he had the courage to say no to the plea deal. And so the system destroyed him.
Browder took his own life. And the country took notice.
If you didn’t follow the Kalief Browder story as it unfolded, Time produced a beautiful documentary series exposing the entire debacle that is now available on Netflix. Falsely accused of stealing a backpack and unwilling to take the DA’s plea bargain, Browder was placed in the infamous Rikers Island prison while the system routinely delayed his trial.
It took three years for Browder to get his day in court. Two of those three miserable years he spent behind bars were in solitary confinement, a traumatizing experience that he never recovered from. His time outside of solitary confinement was spent being brutally beaten by both guards and other inmates.
Once it was made clear that Browder was innocent, the damage had already been done. The physical and psychological horrors he endured weren’t magically erased when the system realized they had screwed up.
Browder took his own life. And the country took notice.
Plea deals prey specifically on the most economically and socially vulnerable.
The Plea Bargain
The justice system is not accustomed to being told “no.” And why should it be? Ninety percent of felony cases never actually make it in front of a judge or jury. This is one reason why Browder’s case was so unique; he refused the reduced sentence. Usually, the accused would rather take a plea deal than face what they think to be a losing battle in court.
This is because plea deals prey specifically on the most economically and socially vulnerable. Its victims come from poor communities where the system has been preying on individuals since its inception. Without the money for a proper defense attorney, many don’t see a viable option for justice to be served.
Scared of losing decades of their lives behind bars, many agree to admit guilt, take the sentence, and become part of a “correctional” system from which they are unlikely to ever escape.
And while many are frightened into believing this is their only solution, it is precisely this line of thinking that keeps perpetuating the plea bargain cycle.
According to PBS Frontline, which did its own extensive research on the plea bargain in 2004, “...plea bargaining is more often than not used to save money and time. The criminal justice system would likely collapse if every case went in front of a judge and/or jury.”
This speaks volumes about the rate of misuse associated with the plea bargains. The system automatically expects them. And it is set up to penalize those who refuse just like it penalizes those who accept. That is why it would be a lie to say that the system had failed in Browder’s case, because the system did exactly what it was intended to do. He was doomed either way.
Right to a “Speedy” Trial
Browder's unwillingness to accept the plea sent his case down a spiral from which neither he nor his family would ever fully recover.
If you are courageous enough to refuse the state’s plea bargain but cannot afford to post bail or pay for a bail bond, as many in this situation cannot, you are incarcerated until your trial. But this isn’t the “right to a speedy trial” we were each taught about in school.
The Sixth Amendment is supposed to protect individuals by requiring the government to guarantee the right to a speedy trial. But what does this really mean? In many states, like New York, it means absolutely nothing.
In New York, your right to a speedy trial is 100 percent determined by the prosecutor’s “readiness.” The “ready rule,” as it is called, delays the right to a trial so long as the prosecution claims it isn’t adequately ready to prosecute your case. Essentially, your “right” to a speedy trial begins as soon as the state says it does, which in Browder’s case, took three years.
This meant being sent to Rikers Island while he waited. And those three years he spent waiting are what ultimately killed him.
Basically, it was just the system’s way of reminding individuals what happens when they challenge authority. The state had almost no evidence to convict Browder. But his unwillingness to accept the plea sent Browder’s case down a spiral from which neither he nor his family would ever fully recover.
He kept being told that he would get his day in court, only to have the prosecution repeatedly say it was not ready. They kept requesting delays, each prolonging Browder's time in prison.
One such delay was granted on the grounds that the DA had not planned his schedule accordingly and Browder’s trial interfered with vacation plans. What may have seemed like a simple scheduling mix-up to the state meant a great deal to the life of Kalief Browder.
Of the 1,000 days Browder stayed in prison, 800 were spent in solitary confinement.
Each day he spent incarcerated further clouded his mind.
Many innocent people sent to Rikers to await trial end up serving more time in the facility than those who are actually convicted. Of the 1,000 days Browder stayed in prison, 800 were spent in solitary confinement. It was argued this was necessary for his own survival.
Rikers Island has a horrible reputation of collusion between prison guards and inmate gangs. The correctional officers will typically use prison gangs to get a point across to inmates who don’t play by their rules. If you don’t pay off the guards, or the gangs, you are going to feel their wrath. And Browder felt it often.
After enduring severe beatings, Rikers placed him in solitary confinement to “protect” him from other inmates. But this couldn’t protect him from the system that had placed him there to begin with.
Solitary confinement is psychological torture. There are actually stricter guidelines in place to protect animals from solitary confinement than there are for prison inmates. All solitary confinement does is make a bad situation much worse. The state acknowledges this with animals, while subjecting the human prison population to it habitually.
Now, instead of being trapped in a system without a trial, you are literally trapped in a box. Your days and nights are filled with other inmates screaming and begging to be released. Some even bash their heads against the doors for hours before guards intervene. The small boxes, housing only a toilet, bed, and sink often smell of feces and other bodily waste from the prisoner who lived there before. This would be enough to break anyone even before the dark thoughts eventually set in.
To the COs and the prosecutors, this is a great way to get someone to crack. Anyone subjected to these conditions would lose their minds. Anyone living in a box lined with human waste would admit to just about anything in exchange for a change of scenery.
But Kalief never budged even when he felt his mind slipping. His pleas for psychological assistance were met with his shower privileges being taken away, on top of everything else.
He had entered a naive, yet brave, child, but he left a broken man aged beyond his years.
Browder’s innocence was eventually proven. In the middle of the night, correctional officers handed him a Metrocard and released him into the darkness. He had entered a naive, yet brave, child, but he left a broken man aged beyond his years.
After released, he tried to reconcile what had happened to him. He spent his time as an activist, telling his story and speaking out about the injustices that were done to him. He warned others not to take plea bargains. He inspired the falsely accused to hold their ground in the face of state threats.
But he was lost. He couldn’t get a job, because now he had a record. He felt disconnected to his family and the rest of society. His outlook on the world was completely distorted. He couldn’t trust anything or anyone.
The more he spoke out, the more unwanted attention he drew. The justice system had brought him to the brink of insanity and then “made amends” by pushing him out into the real world without any resources or even an apology.
It all eventually became too much to handle.
After his suicide, Browder’s mother continued to tell her son’s story and fight for some sort of justice from the state. Already plagued with a heart condition, Kalief’s struggles took a toll on her health. She passed away last October.
It only takes one story to invoke national outrage, as Kalief Browder’s has.
What Can Be Done?
It may be comforting to think of Browder’s story as a rarity or some sort of legal phenomenon. But it’s not. This systemic abuse has been happening for years without any real recognition, because its victims come from communities that the system has not only ignored, but set up to fail.
Whether it be through the War on Drugs or the corresponding “tough on crime” era, or the bail and plea bargain apparatuses, this system is by design.
The state cannot hide from its wrongdoing anymore, especially when it comes to our criminal justice system. Information spreads too quickly now, and it only takes one story to invoke national outrage, as Kalief Browder’s has.
Kalief Browder and his mother both lost their lives in this fight, but it forced the country to acknowledge that the battle even existed. Senators are now standing up for bail reform and many activists and legal scholars are doing their best to inform kids like Kalief that they do not have to accept a government plea bargain. Mayor De Blasio has even ordered Rikers Island to be shut down in response to what has happened.
Kalief’s story is changing more than hearts and minds; it’s changing the entire system. But it shouldn’t have had to happen this way.