I’m working on a criminal justice question and need an explanation to help me understand better.
Pretrial Detention for a Crime He Did Not Commit
In May of 2010, less than two weeks from his seventeenth birthday, Kalief Browder and a friend attended a party in the Bronx. As they walked home in the early morning hours, a police car drove toward the two boys. A few minutes later, a New York City police officer confronted the two teens, saying that a man had just reported that they had robbed him. Browder denied the accusation and invited the officer to check his pockets. The search revealed nothing. The officer returned to his squad car to talk with the alleged victim, at which time the man changed his story and said that the two boys had not robbed him that night, but rather had stolen his backpack two weeks earlier.
Browder and his friend were taken into custody. Browder maintain that he had not committed the robbery for which he was charged. Because he was already on probation for a previous joyriding offense, the judge ordered that Browder be held in custody unless he posted $3,000 bail. And because his family could not afford to post bail, he was taken to the Riker’s Island jail. More than two months passed before Browder next appeared in court. During that time, a grand jury indicted him for the alleged robbery. He entered a plea of not guilty. But because Browder has been on probation at the time of the alleged offense, the judge remanded him into custody without bail.
As the weeks and months passed, Browder steadfastly refused to plead guilty, insisting on his innocence. This fact differentiates Browder from many pretrial detainees in the United States who plead guilty to escape the conditions of their pretrial confinement. More than two years went by during which time more than half a dozen requests for continuances by the prosecution resulted in postponement after postponement of Browder’s trial date. During this time, Browder spent a significant amount of time in solitary confinement–largely as a result of minor jail rule infractions. As he grew depressed, he twice admitted to commit suicide.
In the fall of 2012, prosecutors offered Browder a new plea deal. In exchange for a plea of guilty, he would be sentenced to 2.5 years. Given the time he had already served, that meant Browder would be released in a matter of weeks. According to his court appointed defense attorney, “Ninety-nine out of a hundred would take the offer that gets you out of jail…[But Browder] just said, “Nah, I’m not taking it.’ He didn’t flinch. Never talked about it. He was not taking a plea” (Gonnerman, 2014, para 4). By March of 2013, a judge offered Browder a most tempting opportunity; plead guilty to two misdemeanor offenses in exchange for immediate release on time served. Yet again Browder refused, asserting that he had not done anything wrong. Just over two month later, the judge dismissed, the case against Browder.
Ultimately, Browder spent three years in jail awaiting trial, nearly two years of which was served in solitary confinement. Browder was never able to recover from the psychological damage cause by his ordeal, which included enduring repeated assaults by guards and inmates alike, as well as months of isolation in 23-hour-per-day lockdown. In June 2015, he killed himself at the age of 22 (Owens et al., 2019).
- What do you think about this case? Specifically, critique the practice of holding someone in pretrial detention who has been granted bail, but is unable to afford pay it. Is this fair? Does this comport with the notion of someone being innocent until proven guilty?
- Kalief Browder was offered several opportunities to be released from pretrial detention in exchange for pleading guilty. He refused to do so because he maintain his innocence. If you were in his shoes–incarcerated for nearly three years for a crime you did not commit, would you have pled guilty to something you did not do in order to obtain your freedom?
- What would you change, if anything, about the operations of the criminal justice system based on this case?