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by Peter Moskos

June 9, 2015

"Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide"

Meanwhile, with people too busy complaining about cops, I think we're missing the big picture. We really need to prioritize a bit here. In 2010 a 16-year-old boy was accused of stealing/robbing a backpack. He spent 3 years in a Rikers Island jail.

Three years.

He could have gotten out earlier, but he would have had to take a guilty plea. He said he didn't do it. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. (But given his unwillingness to take a plea, I'm partial to believing he was innocent. But it really doesn't matter.)

Kalief Browder wanted his day in court. If he were found guilty in trial, he would have faced up to 15 years. Instead, after three years in jail, his case was dismissed. Charges dropped. He was released. A metro card and home. The end.

A few days ago he killed himself.

Browder never recovered from his time in jail. Could you?

We only now about Kalief Browder because the New Yorker did a piece on him last year.

There are so many problems here, it might even make one defend flogging.

How do we allow this to happen in our nation?

I wrote a book about the horrors of jail and prison. (Did I mention Flogging is short, light, a great beach read, and the most enjoyable book you'll ever read about whipping people?!) The pointless of it all. The system of justice that does not work. It seems almost pointless to regurgitate them here. And yet this case combines so many bads it seems worth a few highlights.

Browder was sent to jail as a 16-year-old. Browder, as documented on video, was beaten up by guards and inmates. Because of these fights, Browder spent two of his three years in jail in solitary confinement. Browder would not cop a plea, so he stayed in jail.

His bail was $3,000. His family couldn't afford to pay. So he stayed in jail awaiting a trial that never came. In 2013, a judge offered to let him go if he:
plead guilty to two misdemeanors -- the equivalent of sixteen months in jail -- and go home now, on the time already served. “If you want that, I will do that today,” DiMango said. “I could sentence you today. . . . It’s up to you.”
Browder said he wanted to go to trial because he didn't do it. He faced up to 15 year if convicted at trial.

Then, on his 31st court date, three years after he was arrested, his case was dismissed. No trial. No conviction. Also no exoneration. It's like it never happened.

How can this great nation sent a kid to jail for three years without trial? This is third-world dictatorial bullshit.
One reason is budgetary. There are not nearly enough judges and court staff to handle the workload; in 2010, Browder’s case was one of five thousand six hundred and ninety-five felonies that the Bronx District Attorney’s office prosecuted. The problem is compounded by defense attorneys who drag out cases to improve their odds of winning, judges who permit endless adjournments, prosecutors who are perpetually unprepared. Although the Sixth Amendment guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial,” in the Bronx the concept of speedy justice barely exists.
So one answer, a partial answer, is to throw money at the problem. That ain't gonna happen. Because that would require us to actually care. But with more judges and lawyers, the justice system might actually administer more justice. Or at least bad justice quicker. But who really cares about justice when it's other people, poor people, being fucked by the system? Browder is dead because the system -- our system -- fucked him. And it's not like the system forget about Browder. This isn't our system not working as intended. This is the system we have. The least we could is actually care.


David Woycechowsky said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...

I just read the New Yorker story.

I have to wonder even if he had made bail, how could he have made all those court dates without missing a single one?
"On May 29th, the thirty-first court date" I couldn't make 31 consecutive appointments.

One of Alice Goffman's observations was that once someone gets in the system, regardless how, that can be pretty much it. This isn't a strict analogy, but a lot of celebrities can't fulfill the court imposed conditions for release on a charge. This guy seems pretty normal ... but there are a lot of people that are fuckups. Or people that are incapable of doing things like waking up on time, getting to a job on time, &c. Or too drunk or high or hungover to function effectively. How can they possibly navigate our legal system. And if they are guilty, they deserve an opportunity to serve a reasonable amount of time and get it done.

Middle class citizens know ( I think, anyway), that a run in with police can add up to a few thousand quickly. Hire a lawyer. Pay the various costs. Sort of a financial flogging. A pretty effective deterrent. Once and done. I don't know many people that can take a hit of a few thousand without some pain.

And a lot of this sounds like paperwork!!!

"An index card in the court file explains:

June 23, 2011: People not ready, request 1 week.
August 24, 2011: People not ready, request 1 day.
November 4, 2011: People not ready, prosecutor on trial, request 2 weeks.
December 2, 2011: Prosecutor on trial, request January 3rd."

No one uses index cards for anything anymore.

How could that make a difference? A simple database query to highlight cases that have been pending for an unreasonable amount of time.

Racism seems intractable. But fixing up paperwork. Possible. In theory at least.

Anonymous said...

I guess this answers the question: "What would happen if everyone insisted on a trial?"

Seriously. I always thought that the system would just break down if no one took a plea. But I guess we would just keep building jail cells and getting continuances. Or alternatively, keep lots more people in pre-trial supervision of some kind rather than post-trial probation or parole.

Actually, it might serve criminal-justice ends better not to offer pleas; after a while, the entire crime-committing population would be on some type of monitoring....

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to let you know that I found your book "In Defense of Flogging" to be fascinating. I took the time to read of it over lunch one day. Needless to say, the guys drinking their weekday noon-time beers at Applebees gave me some funny looks, not that they were really in any position to judge. Aside from being amused at the reactions of others while I read, I did find that your book was thought provoking.

As you mentioned in this blog post, the US penal system is very much broken. People should not be spending 3 years in jail without being given a trial. People shouldn't be leaving jail in such a broken state that they feel that they have no other options except to commit suicide. Travesties of this nature are unacceptable and should not happen here.

I agree with your sentiments regarding how "throwing money" at the problem may help. But, the bigger issue would be swaying public opinion enough to get our lawmakers to care about the criminal justice reform. For that to happen, we (as members of the public) need to be more willing to engage in discussions with our fellow citizens. I'm thinking of a few people who will be receiving your book for Christmas. Thank you for the interesting read!