The Pitfalls in an Ineffective Criminal Justice System

There are many ethical issues that are presented in the case of Kalief Browder that illustrate the pitfalls in an ineffective criminal justice system. The concept of bail can...
Criminal Court
Photo by gt8073a via flickr

There are many ethical issues that are presented in the case of Kalief Browder that illustrate the pitfalls in an ineffective criminal justice system. The concept of bail can be argued to be unethical as it unfairly impacts those in low-income communities. If the impression of jail is to physically detain those who have committed crimes to ensure public safety or to be used as a weapon of punishment for a crime, then bail should not exist. In its current fashion, bail exists only to guarantee the rich are allowed to be set free – until their court date, that is – and the poor stay behind bars. Taking into consideration a large population of those in jail are only being held as they await the resolution of their charge, as Kalief Browder was, it is reprehensible that someone who may be innocent would have to pay money just to be out of the horrific conditions that are often present in jails and with their families and communities. If one is in jail simply waiting for a charge, their very presence undermines the just notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” Certainly there are criminal cases in which it would be necessary to house a person if it can be reasonably determined that this person is a flight risk or a threat to society, but using capital as a medium to determine whether or not someone makes it back to court or is considered dangerous is inane.

Kalief Browder was also forfeited his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy and public trial. The Bronx criminal court system is considered “one of the most backlogged in the country” according to the New York Times. Each state has different laws regarding speedy trials and time frames at which a trial should be ready to start. New York state has a “ready rule” which instructs:

“all felony cases (except homicides) must be ready for trial within six months of arraignment, or else the charges can be dismissed. In practice, however, this time limit is subject to technicalities. The clock stops for many reasons—for example, when defense attorneys submit motions before trial—so that the amount of time that is officially held to have elapsed can be wildly different from the amount of time that really has. In 2011, seventy-four per cent of felony cases in the Bronx were older than six months.” (Gonnerman 2)

Six months is not what most would consider speedy but under the law one-hundred and eighty days at the very least is expedient. Except under this law whenever Notices of Readiness are filed by the prosecutor it sets the time frame by which trial can initiate back – legally. Kalief Browder sat through numerous motions in jail, being beaten by both guards and inmates, receiving inadequate nutrition if even served meals at all, and being thrown into solitary for minor and/or unavoidable infractions where those stays can last months at a time. Because of this legal permission Browder was also not able to file a speedy trial motion which would get his case dismissed because according to New York’s ready rules with the motions filed by the prosecutor Browder’s case had not reached the six-month mark.

Browder was offered numerous plea deals from the moment of his confinement but he refused. Gonnerman’s story mentions this while making note that many thought Browder was crazy for not taking it. Accepting a plea bargain would mean getting out of jail sooner but it also meant accepting a label that wasn’t his. How just is a criminal justice system that would rather force people into saying they are guilty of a crime to receive lesser punishment than to make sure they receive a fair trial to prove their innocence? This too would be a violation of the Sixth Amendment for the people have a constitutional right to trial. Undermining someone’s chance at a trial by a jury of their peers by coercing them into a “deal” which tells them that they must accept being legally defined as a criminal – nevermind whether or not they are innocent – in order to avoid a chance that they may receive harsher sentences is a violent and abhorrent obstruction of justice.

Browder spent three years held in jail awaiting a trial that never even came. His case was finally dismissed in 2013 after his thirty-first court date. After years of insisting his innocence an assistant district attorney filed a memo with the court explaining that the man who had accused Browder had gone back to Mexico. The district attorney’s office was also not able to reach the man’s brother who lived in the Bronx as well. Thus, without a complainant, they were unable to meet their burden of proof at trial.

This telling case of an overcrowded, underfunded, backlogged, and frankly overlooked court system while chilling is definitely not an anomaly. There are numerous cases of mistreatment of individuals that can be attributed to structural issues in the way that criminal justice is thought about and legislated in the United States. This analysis of Kalief Browder’s story doesn’t even touch on the abuses of inmates in jail. Browder reports constant fights amongst inmates, guards challenging inmates to fights, guards refusing medical treatment to inmates with threats of disciplinary reports, and the overall focus on retribution and punishment of those deemed worthy of such a fate. These atrocities are evidenced by that fact that Kalief Browder is not alive today, he attempted suicide numerous times both in and out of jail, finally hanging himself outside of the window of his parents’ house. The hands that hung the cord from Kalief Browder’s neck are not entirely his own, but the bloodied hands of an incompetent criminal justice system.

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