When 16-year-old Kalief Browder arrived at Rikers Island in 2010, he hadn’t been convicted of any crime. Accused of stealing a backpack, Kalief ended up in jail after his family was unable to scrape together the $3,000 required to post bail.
Determined to prove his innocence, Kalief rejected plea agreements that would have branded him a criminal. After 33 preliminary hearings — times when his hopes were raised that he’d be released — and nearly three horrific years of incarceration, prosecutors dismissed all charges against him.
Two years after his release, Browder took his own life. He was only 22.
Browder’s mental decline is easy to track. The abuse and violence at Rikers Island is well documented.
What is less understood and appreciated is how in New York, a state that many people think is friendly to the accused, the very structure of our criminal courts winds up dragging the process along in a way that effectively denies people their basic rights.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial,” a right that’s echoed in New York’s own criminal procedures.
But in practice, we make a mockery out of the promise, allowing for delays that led to the marathon incarceration of thousands of innocent people.
It is a moral and legal imperative that we right this wrong.
In the Bronx, a misdemeanor, such as open display of marijuana, should be brought to trial within 90 days. That is rarely the case, as pressure to accept plea agreements leads most suspects to render guilty pleas before ever seeing a judge.
The average person accused of a misdemeanor instead waits an average of 897 days to receive a jury trial in the Bronx. These delays send families into poverty and amount to a massive waste of our human potential.
And these delays are obscenely expensive – taxpayers pay $677 per day to keep someone at Rikers. Do the math, and it costs about $465,000 to hold a typical person who’s awaiting trial.
With Mayor de Blasio committed to the closure of Rikers Island, we must now come to terms with the wasteful, abusive system that condemns thousands to live in hell while awaiting their chance for justice.
That’s why Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and other organizations across New York are campaigning for passage of Kalief’s Law, which would require cases go before a judge in a reasonable time window.
Sponsored by Sen. Daniel Squadron and Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, the legislation would make our court system far more just. It would:
l End the policy of excluding “court congestion” from counting against the “speedy trial clock.” All Americans are guaranteed a speedy trial, but under current law, administrative delays in backed up courts don’t classify as a delay. They must.
l Require judges to decide, on record, whether a given set of proceedings are counting down the speedy trial clock.
l Require prosecutors to actually be ready for trial when they claim. Currently, many supposedly trial-ready cases end up getting delayed by prosecutors — as happened to Kalief.
l Require prosecutors to file a certificate of compliance when defense attorneys request discovery of evidence. Under current regulations, prosecutors may claim to be ready for discovery even if they intend to submit a request for delay.
These are straightforward changes that all New Yorkers can agree better serve the interest of justice than our current, broken system.
This bill would not strain court resources. Half as many people go through the New York court system today as did two decades ago, yet court processing times are twice as long. No one is well-served by this confusion.
The bill was passed unanimously by the Assembly earlier this year, but is now stuck in the Senate. When I joined advocates in Albany earlier this month, we found wide bipartisan support for Kalief’s Law. So why is it not moving forward?
When my father, Robert F. Kennedy, served as a U.S. senator from New York, he pioneered federal bail and sentencing reform that improved the way our justice system worked. Nearly 50 years later, similar changes must come to the state level.
Together, we can and must build a more just justice system.
Kennedy is the President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.