Opinion: N.J. should learn from Kalief Browder’s death how to handle juveniles in criminal justice system

June 13, 2015

In a forceful op-ed in the Star-Ledger, our friend and partner Laura Cohen, of the Rutgers Post-Disposition Advocacy Project, makes the case for reforming New Jersey’s juvenile justice system. She calls the suicide of Kalief Browder – who was held at Riker’s Island for three years (two in solitary confinement) without being charged with a crime – “a knife in society’s gut, because, at each point along his tortuous path, through the system, harmful, antiquated and easily-fixed policies contributed to his demise.”

We are proud to support Laura’s work, and encourage you to learn more about our partnership to reform juvenile justice here. Scroll down for the full Star-Ledger op-ed.

N.J. should learn from Kalief Browder’s death how to handle juveniles in criminal justice system

By Laura Cohen and Alexander Shalom

Commentators have dubbed last week’s suicide of Kalief Browder – who, at sixteen, was arrested and incarcerated on Rikers Island for three years while awaiting trial – a “tragedy.” “Tragedy” suggests an unavoidable calamity. Kalief’s heartbreaking death was the direct result of irrational criminal and juvenile justice policies compounded by deliberate acts of cruelty and indifference by those charged with ensuring his safety during his 1,000 days in jail. That the loss of this young man, so full of promise, was utterly preventable makes it all the more horrifying.

According to the New Yorker, Browder was charged with robbery of a backpack in 2010. From the start, many questions arose regarding his involvement in the crime; the complaining witness, for example, provided conflicting details about the incident, including the date on which it occurred. At the time, Browder was a high school sophomore who teachers described as “smart” and “fun.” The court set bail at $3,000, which his mother could not afford to post. So, he sat in jail.

Over the next three years, Browder was brutalized numerous times by correctional officers and other inmates. He was held in solitary confinement and deprived of any meaningful human interaction for a total of almost two years. His physical and mental health deteriorated; for the first time, he began to contemplate suicide and attempted at least once to hang himself. Despite this trauma, he rejected numerous, increasingly lenient plea offers, insisting on his innocence and his right to a trial. Ultimately, the case against him was dismissed and he was released in May 2013. After returning home, he continued to suffer the psychological aftershocks of his ordeal. His life, as he saw it, had been derailed. He was only 22 when he took his own life.

Browder’s story is a knife in society’s gut, because, at each point along his tortuous path, through the system, harmful, antiquated and easily-fixed policies contributed to his demise.

First, although he was just 16 at the time of his arrest, he was charged as an adult and held in an adult jail. Every state, including New Jersey, has mechanisms for prosecuting children in the adult system, under the guise of public safety. Yet study after study has established that young people prosecuted as adults reoffend more frequently and more seriously than those who remain in the juvenile justice system. Like Browder, they are more likely to be physically and sexually assaulted while in custody, more likely to attempt or commit suicide and less likely to receive essential educational services and mental health treatment.

Second, though Browder was never convicted of the robbery, he sat in jail for three years. He wasn’t detained because he was dangerous or likely to skip town: he was jailed because he didn’t have $3,000. Throughout the country, including in New Jersey, jails are filled with people who are in jail simply because they are poor. And Browder, like so many people in our state, didn’t wait weeks or months for his day in court, he waited years. Courts in New Jersey have failed to enforce the right to a speedy trial even in cases where it took more than four years to bring a defendant to trial.

Finally, Browder, like so many incarcerated people, suffered long periods of solitary confinement, and he attributed his ongoing depression and anxiety to the trauma of that isolation. This is consistent with a substantial body of research establishing that even a short stint in solitary can lead to profound psychological distress, including chronic and overwhelming depression, paranoia, hallucinations and feelings of rage and violence. Solitary is even more dangerous for children, whose brains are still developing and are more acutely affected by the denial of human contact.

There is no silver lining to Browder’s death. But we are poised at a unique moment in New Jersey, with the opportunity to bring about meaningful change to the state’s laws governing isolation and juvenile justice. Legislation (S-2003) would impose new limitations on the use of isolation in juvenile facilities and reduce the number of children who can be tried as or incarcerated with adults. It has been passed by the state Senate and will soon come to a vote in the Assembly. A recently introduced bill (S-2588) would prohibit the use of solitary confinement for punitive purposes in adult prisons. Just last summer, New Jersey approved historic bail reform legislation with speedy trial guarantees that – if properly implemented – will ensure that people like Browder are not held in jail awaiting their day in court.

These measures are only the first step to real and necessary reform of criminal and juvenile “justice” systems that are often unworthy of the name, but they are important first steps, and they are the best way to prevent the senseless loss of another young life.

Laura Cohen is clinical professor of law, Justice Virginia Long Scholar and director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at the Rutgers School of Law in Newark. Alexander Shalom is senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.