By Bill Parry
Another sad chapter in the story of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide in 2015 after a harrowing ordeal on Rikers Island, was written during a City Council subcommittee hearing last week during testimony by his older brother. Akeem Browder, still grieving after his mother Venida’s death last month following several heart attacks, said she suffered immeasurable guilt and depression without any counseling or therapy.
“She let Kalief out that night to go to a birthday party and that was the first time my brother was allowed out,” the older Browder said. “We were never a part of the streets, we weren’t allowed to run in the streets. She gave him an 11 o’clock curfew and that’s when he was stopped and that’s when this all began, so my mom blamed herself.”
The 16-year-old was arrested for stealing a backpack and spent the next three years on Rikers Island where he suffered frequent beatings by guards and inmates and spent nearly 300 days in solitary confinement, without ever being charged—all because his family couldn’t afford the $3,000 bail.
Mayor Bill de Blasio created Justice Reboot to reform Rikers Island after Kalief’s story received national attention. The program featured substantial overhauls to Rikers, including scheduling a trial or plea for all cases where the defendant was being held at Rikers and the case had been pending for longer than a year, within the first 45 days of the program’s April 2015 implementation.
“There’s no change, period,” Akeem Browder, 33, said. “My mother still hasn’t seen any justice. We’ve been given false dreams and promises that things would change.”
City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) chairs the Courts and Legal Services Committee and held hearings last week to put pressure on the de Blasio administration.
“The number of prisoners on Rikers who have been awaiting trial for over one year is currently between 1,3000 and 1,400 people, marginally less than the 1,427 prisoners there for over one year as of April 2015,” Lancman said. “Thus despite some progress, by the metric that matters most—the number of innocent-until-proven-guilty New Yorkers held for an extended period of time awaiting trial—we are barely treading water. The root problem, it seems, is that there appears to be no demonstrable evidence that progress has been made on identifying and improving systematic issues that lead to case delays. The benchmarks have been met, but a new group of individuals continue to cycle into the one-year-or-older case category.”
The number of people jailed for more than three years while waiting for their cases to work through the system has fallen 39 percent, according to the mayor’s office, while 91 percent of the 1,427 Justice Reboot target cases have been resolved, with 50 percent cleared in four months. Plus, Justice Reboot was intended to be a one-time fix, because actually cutting case delays requires system change, according to the Mayor’s office. .
“Justice Reboot has been a success in solving one of the most entrenched, complicated problems in the criminal justice system and the single biggest driver of the jail population,” City Hall spokesman Austin Finan said. “This initiative is the first to tackle the problem of case delay across the entire system and the city—a problem that had been getting worse and worse over decades.”
The results failed to impress Browder family attorney Paul Prestia, who also testified at the hearing.
“While it sounded wonderful at the time, it doesn’t appear there was any substance behind this program, and that’s disappointing,” Prestia said. “I would have expected more, especially when the mayor patted himself on the back about this particular problem.”
Meanwhile, Akeem Browder will take on his mother’s fight for justice for his little brother by pushing to close Rikers Island, which he called a “gladiator school” of mass incarceration.
“To know my mother didn’t see justice before Kalief passed and before she passed is really hard for me,” he said. “My mother did lose faith in what the system had to offer. We need to stop this from happening again and again and again.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr