When I saw Kalief Browder’s 2013 television interview, I wanted to meet him. He was 20 and had just come home from a more-than-thousand-day stay on Rikers. Like a lot of people I know who are disappeared by the system, Kalief seemed like the same 16-year-old he was when he went in, but he had an inner strength, an ability to stand up for himself that I deeply admired. He explained why he wouldn’t cop a plea for a crime he hadn’t committed, even if it meant facing 15 years in prison. Offered immediate release from Rikers’s notoriously grimy RNDC, after more than ten months spent in the Bing (solitary confinement), Kalief turned the prosecutor down. He didn’t think it was right to admit to something he’d never done. This weekend we learned that Kalief, who reportedly had no mental illness when he was arrested, killed himself.
New York failed Kalief. The list of things that went wrong in his case begins with his first encounter with the NYPD, whose practice of targeting black teens is well documented. The idea that being accused of stealing a backpack would lead to his arrest and detention would be absurd if it weren’t actually tragic. He should not have been tried as an adult, or had prosecutors, defenders, and judges so overwhelmed with cases that he waited three years for trial, violating his constitutional right to swift justice. He should not have been held in an adult jail where he would spend 700 to 800 days of those three years in solitary confinement. He should not have spent one day being abused by guards or the others incarcerated there.
This Martin Luther King Day, Governor Cuomo publicly released findings from a task force he began last year to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the patterns and practices at Rikers violate the human rights of adolescent males in jail. Rikers shouldn’t even have a youth unit. The RNDC, where Kalief spent three years, where 18-year-old Kenan Davis hanged himself this week, should not exist. Right now legislators in Albany are considering legislation that would end the automatic prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, and remove youths like Kalief from Rikers and other jails throughout the state. Kalief died because our system is broken, and lawmakers can act now to stop tragedies like this in the future.
John Legend is a Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer and songwriter.