Long before his name became synonymous with New York’s bail reform, before he endured years of physical and emotional trauma at the hands of the state’s criminal legal system, Kalief Browder was a lanky 16-year-old from the Bronx. He enjoyed playing Pokémon, watching professional wrestling, and spending time at the city zoo.
That all changed instantly in the early morning hours of May 2010 when Browder was arrested for beating up a man and stealing his backpack. The arrest spurred a three-year saga in which Browder spent more than 1,100 days in Rikers Island Jail. He was subjected to dozens of fights in order to survive, he would tell his mom. Guards assaulted him. He endured more than 700 days in solitary confinement and multiple suicide attempts.
“I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel,” Browder later said in a 2014 exposé with the New Yorker that was the first to spotlight his case. “Because there are certain things about me and they might not go back.”
Dysfunctional, Decrepit, and Dangerous
Rikers Island is New York City’s 400-acre jail complex and the second-largest jail facility in the U.S. The island sits in the East River, next to bustling Manhattan, and a mere 300 yards for the busy runways of LaGuardia Airport. The island houses 10 jails: eight for men and one for women. The one remaining has been inhabitable since 2000.
Crumbling infrastructure and a history of violence plague the complex. Inside, news reports detail decrepit conditions that include staffing shortages, entire jails overrun by gangs, and detained individuals who nevertheless walk around freely. Zachary Katznelson, the executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, called Rikers “dysfunctional, decrepit, and dangerous.”
“What we see today is next level,” Katznelson told The New York Times. “It is an inability to deliver even basic services — something we haven’t seen in a long time, if not ever.”
(The Center for Court Innovation, an NPPJ partner, released a report that provides a roadmap at how city officials can continue to work to reduce Rikers’ jail population while ultimately shuttering the complex. You can read it here.)
New York’s jail population exploded in the 1990s. The state’s Rockefeller drug laws from the 1970s, which mandated harsh sentences for low-level drug crimes, were met with the passage of a 1990s federal crime bill that reinforced mass incarceration.
“The tough-on-crime legislation sought to incarcerate first as opposed to finding a holistic solution to public safety concerns,” said Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of the Greater Justice New York program for the Vera Institute of Justice. “Our jail and prison populations exploded as more and more people were detained on unaffordable bail while awaiting trial.”
When Browder arrived to Rikers in 2010, he was taken to the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), an all-male facility that housed young adults ages 16 to 18. He was one of nearly 600 housed in the unit. A U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York noted the jail had a “deep-seated culture of violence” and injuries included “broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses.”
Browder, having spent his 17th birthday in jail still legally innocent of the crime for which he was charged, told his mother during one of her weekend visits of the horrors he faced.
“He told me, ‘Ma, I gotta fight,” Venita Browder said in an interview with The Marshall Project in 2016. “If I don’t, they’ll think I’m soft. I gotta fight.’ What it did for Kalief was give him more trouble and more days in solitary.”
Browder spent more than 700 days of his three years in solitary confinement. He was confined to a 7‑foot-by-12-foot cell for 23 hours a day. The only time he was allowed to leave was a brief period for visitation, recreation time, to shower, or receive medical care. Every time he left his solitary cell, he was handcuffed and escorted by a guard. Once confined to solitary, the smallest infraction could extend a person’s stay.
Research has shown the harmful effects of solitary confinement to young adults. Those housed in solitary for long periods are more prone to suicidal thoughts, anxiety, depression, or self-harm. The American Academy of Pediatrics has outright rejected the use of solitary for young people. As Browder sat in his cell, he was missing much of his high school career. No spending time with friends. Or getting his drivers license. Or experiencing the thrill leading up to graduation. Instead, he often read magazines or exercised. While the emotional trauma worsened, he wasn’t safe from physical abuse.
A video first obtained by the New Yorker shows a guard escorting Browder out of his cell in solitary confinement. The guard walks Browder down a narrow walkway before slamming him on the ground. With Browder’s chest to the ground, the guard put his knee in Browder’s back and uses his hand to force Browder’s head to the ground.
The culmination of the trauma and abuse was too much for Browder, who was now pushing 20 years old. While in solitary, he attempted suicide multiple times.
“He couldn’t take it. [The guards] told him, ‘We’re gonna break you.’ That’s what they told my baby,” Venita Browder told The Marshall Project. “And in reality, they did.”
A Paradigm Shift
Kalief Browder wasn’t always a household name in New York. But as he sat in jail — determined to clear his name and rejecting plea deals — New York City officials were working to reform their pretrial systems.
There was a time in the city’s history that few knew exactly how many people were detained or released pretrial in a given year. That changed in 2019 when the New York City Criminal Justice Agency (CJA) published an online dashboard that details the city’s pretrial release numbers. The CJA, founded in 1973, provides around-the-clock support to people released pretrial to ensure they fulfill their court obligations. In order to provide more transparency to the public, the agency launched its pretrial release dashboard that tracks cases each month as they work through the system, allowing information that’s more readily available about the pretrial system.
Other methods of understanding pretrial release involved tracking a select group of people arrested pretrial and following their cases for a year, spending months analyzing the data, and releasing a report a year or more later.
“You may have a two- or three-year lag time,” said Aubrey Fox, executive director of the CJA. “And so us reporting on a month-to-month basis, we can see the picture of total population and where trends are moving.”
With the explosive exposé by the New Yorker that put Browder’s case in the mainstream, and a growing national awareness of unjust pretrial practices, New York lawmakers embarked on a years-long legislative effort to permanently change the state’s pretrial laws.
Those efforts culminated into statewide reforms that took effect in January 2020 — months before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across America. The reforms had two main goals: shrinking the state’s jail population and ensuring people weren’t jailed simply because they couldn’t afford to pay for their freedom. They achieved those goals by largely eliminating cash bail for all misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses. Judges also had to consider a person’s financial situation in setting bail in cases that were eligible.
“Our jail populations plummeted across the state within the first year,” said Harris-Calvin with Vera. (The Vera Institute of Justice is an NPPJ partner.)
At Rikers Island, there were 20,000 people held in the jail complex in the 1990s. After the 2020 reforms took hold — coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic — the population plummeted to 3,800.
New York City had a robust pretrial system already in place that led to a decline in its jail population since the early 2000s. Police stopped arresting people for low-level marijuana possession, district attorneys focused more on diversion for low-level charges, and the city expanded who was eligible for supervised released. The 2020 reforms left more rural counties without big-city funding and resources to get creative in implementing the new laws. Lawmakers failed to provide robust funding and left officials statewide just nine months of lead-time until the laws took effect.
In Dutchess County, home of Poughkeepsie in Upstate, the county relied on a legacy of collaboration to understand and craft a plan to implement the “paradigm shift” in the state’s bail laws.
“The biggest thing of importance in bail reform is that it shifts the focus to a presumption of release when someone is arrested,” said Jonathan Heller, the county’s principal probation officer. “Before it was a presumption of incarceration.”
That collaboration included convening the county’s 35-member criminal justice council — made up of the district attorney, public defender, judges, and other community stakeholders — to address each case that would be eligible for release when the laws took effect in January. The council then worked with judges to sign writs for release and schedule cases for release January and preventing an influx of cases that could overwhelm the system.
“[The process] saved our courts’ time, pretrial services’ time, the attorneys’ time, and the district attorney’s time,” said Kathy McQuade, the county’s probation supervisor for pretrial services.
Early research studying the 2020 reforms has shown they’ve largely been successful and have not led to an increase in violence. A report by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College found that from January 2019 to December 2020:
- Arraignments statewide fell 38%.
- Cases in which bail was set, the report found, also declined 9% statewide.
- The reforms reduced bail setting in felony cases by 17% statewide.
“There are such a huge range of benefits of not keeping people in jail, especially those who are charged with nonviolent, low-level offenses,” said Olive Lu, senior research associate who led the report for DCJ. “They’re able to go back to work, they’re able to continue to provide for their families, and they’re able to continue to be productive members of society.”
Lu added: “Most times people in pretrial detention are there because they can’t afford to pay bail.”
Despite the many benefits of bail reform, critics cry wolf that the increase of people released pretrial has led to a spike in violent crime in New York. Growing research shows those claims are misleading, if not outright false.
Despite those hallowed cries, state lawmakers have twice amended the state’s bail laws. In July 2020, that expands cases where judges can set cash bail to include harm to a person or property charges, certain weapon possession-related charges, repeat offense cases, among others. In March 2022, Gov. Kathy Hochul again amended the state’s bail laws by expanding cases that are bail eligible, including weapons charges, and allowing judges to set bail in repeat-offense cases.
In an analysis by the Brennan Center, “The Facts on Bail Reform and Crime Rates in New York State,” co-author Ames Grawert made three key findings about the state’s bail reform:
- There is no evidence linking bail reform to the 2020 – 21 crime increase.
- Crime rose in jurisdictions — both with and without bail reform.
- Crime is complex, and policymakers should be wary of simplistic answers.
“I think the most important takeaway is that we’re still fairly early in the history of bail reform in New York. We’re only now starting to get information on how the law works and how it’s interacted with crime rates,” said Grawert, senior legal counsel for the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “But if you’re looking for evidence that bail reform caused crime to rise, you’d be coming up blank right now.”
‘He Did Not Die in Vain’
In May 2013, after three years housed at Rikers Island an innocent man, Browder was released and the charges against him dropped. Prosecutors told the judge they had trouble finding the man who initially accused the two boys of assault and theft. The judge ruled the “district attorney is really in a position right now where they cannot proceed. She added, “It is their intention to dismiss the case.”
Browder, now 20, had endured countless delays and rejected numerous plea deals with the belief he would prove his innocence during trial. By then, he had missed his high school prom, graduation, and any chance of starting college along with his peers. Though he proved victorious, the emotional damage had long been done.
Browder’s mom, Venida, said he stopped speaking with friends. He grew angry at the slightest things. There were times he would just stare off into space. It was a stark difference from the playful young man who enjoyed copying his older brother’s workouts.
“He was afraid to trust anybody,” Vendia told The Marshall Project. “He even told me one time, ‘I don’t know if I can trust you.’”
Browder tried to acclimate into everyday life. He earned his GED. He was hired as a part-time security guard, but was fired. He enrolled at a local community college. He spoke with girls, but the conversations never made it far; the anxiety of having to explain his situation too overwhelming to continue.
He feared that the police were out to get him, and he was skeptical of his surroundings — that anything or anyone was listening, waiting to get him. Venida Browder said her son was susceptible to mood swings, and when angry he often paced the four corners of his room like he had done in jail.
On June 6, 2015, two years after his release, Browder died by suicide at his childhood home. He was 22. “Physically, he was here,” Venida Browder told The Marshall Project. “But mentally he was still in Rikers.”
Years after his death, then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Browder “caused a lot of people to act, and a lot of changes we are making at Rikers Island right now are the result of the example of Kalief Browder.”
“I wish we hadn’t lost him,” de Blasio said. “But he did not die in vain.”