Criminal Justice Reform in NYS
My Brother's Keeper;
Today in New York, nearly 70% of those held in jail across the state are imprisoned indefinitely pretrial. Most are there not because they are dangerous, but because they are poor. Over decades of government inaction in the face of this moral, social and fiscal crisis, thousands of families have been torn apart and thousands of lives have been ruined. There’s one way to right this wrong: fixing our outdated, unfair system by ending wealth-based detention outright.
My family understands this crisis firsthand. We learned it the hardest way possible. My brother, Kalief Browder, ended his young life after spending three agonizing years at Rikers Island on the suspicion of stealing a backpack. All because we couldn’t afford the $3,000 bail. We couldn’t get him out, enabling him to go to be at home and go to school while awaiting trial. Currently, over 25,000 other New Yorkers are in the same position.
There are 63 state Senate districts in New York, and my neighborhood in the Bronx, the place my family calls home, is the poorest. Nearly 40% of my neighbors live below the poverty line; if you’re a child, that number jumps to almost 50%. The median household income is roughly $34,000, compared to the national income of over $53,000.
These aren’t abstract statistics; they are our reality. We know all too well how poverty is the indicator and dictator of our every move and far too many outcomes. Had Kalief been arrested in any other place, with any other skin color and any other household income, this would have been a non-offense — perhaps community service if, when charged, he was actually found guilty. But for him, it became the beginning of a death sentence. Many have heard his story; but my family lived it and is still living with it today. My teenage brother sat defenseless and alone in one of the country’s most lawless and terrifying jails for three horrifying years.
Most of these years were spent in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day — that is, when he wasn’t being beaten by guards and inmates. While Kalief’s friends were preparing to graduate from high school, enter the workforce or begin college, Kalief was being physically and emotionally abused by a criminal justice system that has used a profit-driven cash-bail system to destroy the lives of New York’s poor in every region of the state. I was 27 years old when Kalief was arrested. I was 32 years old when he killed himself. I will never forget.
Though we are all supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, for too long, we have designed and sustained a system that locks up the poor while letting the wealthier among us walk free.
Many elected officials have pledged to take action to fix this problem, including Gov. Cuomo. I was there at his State of the State speech in January when the governor said clearly, to me, “I want you to know that your brother did not die in vain.”
I heard him say, without equivocation, “The blunt ugly reality is that too often, if you can make bail you are set free and if you are too poor to make bail you are punished.”
He’s absolutely right. But change has not come yet come out of Albany.
We have an opportunity and an obligation to change this before the legislative session concludes in June. It is a moral imperative.
For those who care more about dollars and cents than right and wrong, this is also a fiscal issue. New York taxpayers spend over $350 million annually to detain people pretrial.
Surely that money can be put to better use.
More and more New York lawmakers have learned how to talk a good game on criminal justice reform. That’s no longer enough. The time has come for action — to actually overhaul our backward bail system, keep families together, and save the lives of countless people who are treated as nothing profit for bail bondsmen and a money-hungry criminal justice system.
There was no one to stand up for Kalief when he was locked up at 16 years old. He had no voice, no campaign, no marches, no lobbyist. Now is our time to do his memory and that of so many others justice by making sure no other family is destroyed and life taken because of an unjust and unaffordable bail system. Now is our time to say-not one more. The power to do so is in the hands of our elected leaders in Albany. We'll be working to hold them accountable for justice.