Evan F. Moore: Know the name Kalief Browder

Evan F. Moore More Content Now

Kalief Browder is a name every American should know.

When Kalief was 16 years old, he was arrested for stealing a backpack. He was charged and held on bail but never tried. He was imprisoned on New York City’s Rikers Island for three years. While Kalief was in prison, he was subjected to repeated beatings and solitary confinement.

Once Kalief was released from prison – the man who accused him had left the country, so a trial couldn’t proceed without a plaintiff – initially he seemed to be doing well. He spoke to several media outlets to tell people about his journey, highlighted by a series of articles at the New Yorker.

Two years later, Kalief killed himself.

Along the way, he became the symbol of the systemic issues that plagued America’s criminal justice system. Most notably, that jails and prisons do an awful job of what happens once someone transitions to life outside of prison.

Before the docu-series on his life and the circumstances of his arrest and incarceration made its debut on Spike TV in March (as “Time: The Kalief Browder Story”), I attended a screening of the first three episodes that was followed by a panel discussion with Browder’s family. After the episodes ended, the room was silent for minutes.

Many of us were appalled at what we had just watched. We watched a kid wrongfully accused as a child get chewed up and spit out by the system. Most of, if not all of, our institutions failed Kalief — from the police to the correctional system to the lack of cooperative economics in black and brown communities. Kalief came back to a life on the outside with no way to move forward from his past.

His story tells us that if you’re poor and black, the odds are against you. Kalief’s demons from his prison stay were too much to overcome, and he ended up committing suicide after an incident with police that his brother told the New York Daily News “definitely brought back some bad memories.” Also, it shows that no matter how much money we make or how educated we are, we can end up being a part of the prison industrial complex – the system is so broken down it can affect anyone.

Just imagine if Kalief had taken a plea deal like so many people who can’t afford an attorney. We might have never heard of his story.

Due to Kalief’s courage in a difficult time, insisting upon his innocence for three years, laws were changed.

Last year, New York State Assembly passed “Kalief’s Law,” to reform the state’s speedy trial provision and improve the effectiveness of the state’s criminal justice system, ensuring that people aren’t unjustly held in pretrial detention for longer than they needed to be.

“For too long, the constitutionally guaranteed right to a speedy trial has been denied in New York. Our broken Rockefeller-era law does nothing to guarantee to a speedy trial for the accused,” New York State Sen. Daniel Squadron said in a news release after the changes were passed. “In fact, it does the exact opposite, protecting a system that too often delays justice at the cost of defendants, victims and the taxpayers.”

There are so many Kalief Browders who’ve been wronged by America’s criminal justice system that we don’t even know about. And his story should not be a one-off defined by a television show co-produced by hip-hop artist Jay-Z.

Kalief’s death showed how America’s criminal justice system’s sausage is made.

That should scare more Americans than it already does.

— Evan F. Moore is a syndicated columnist with GateHouse Media. He writes about the intersection of race, violence and culture. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, Chicago Tribune and Ebony. Follow him on Twitter @evanfmoore.