Sunday, October 12, 2014


Many people in Europe, America, and Iran are upset and protesting over the jailing of a young woman in Iran for political activism. Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian law student in London, has been in jail for 100 days without trial, and she has started a hunger strike. Support for her cause is growing.

Meanwhile, right here in the U.S. of A., a large number of people are incarcerated and awaiting trial under circumstances that are beyond belief. Take the case of Kalief Browder, recently released from prison in New York after spending 3 years (yes, three) in jail without a trial for something he claimed he had not done. Kalief was stopped and arrested when he was 16 years old. Someone had identified him as a person who had stolen his backpack several weeks prior to Kalief's arrest. Because his family could not raise the $3,000 bail, he went to jail awaiting trial. The nightmare of his incarceration for three years without trial is detailed in an article in the New Yorker magazine, and it will make your blood boil. You should read the article; it is infuriating.

Kalief missed his last two years of high school. He missed his prom and being graduated from high school. He missed developing skills for life as a teen because he spent three years behind bars, a major percentage of the time in solitary confinement. The court system in New York has a process for speedy trial if one is requested. Once the request is made to a judge, the trial must take place within 6 weeks. There is a major catch, however, which is played to the hilt by the public prosecutors: if the prosecution asks for a delay (typically because they "aren't ready"), the judge will usually grant a delay of a couple of days. The courts are so overloaded, however, that the new date is usually 6, 8 or more weeks out. But because the judge granted let's say a 2-day delay, the time until the new date is only counted as 2 days towards the 6-week limit. By doing this repeatedly, Kalief spent 3 years of his teenage years behind bars, in very poor, and dangerous, living conditions. 

Kalief was offered plea deals during the three years. If he plead guilty, he would only get something like a 3 to 5 years sentence and his time already spent in jail would count against it. If he didn't take the plea, he was advised that he might lose at trial and get 15 years. Kalief insisted on his innocence, and refused the plea bargain deals. 

Kalief was finally released after a new judge on his case pressed the prosecution when they asked for yet another delay. The reason for this delay was that the accuser had gone back to Mexico and they could not find him. The judge finally said "enough" and dismissed the case against Kalief; he was released.

The life of this young man has been irrevocably changed. He suffers from depression and has contemplated suicide. He has few friends, is awkward socially, is fearful of crowded places (like prison, where people were often beaten, by inmates and guards, or stabbed), and has trouble finding work. He now has an attorney and is suing the City of New York and the New York Police Department.

The case of Kalief Browder is beyond sad, and one has to wonder how this could happen in America. But his case is symptomatic of a common trend in the justice system in this country.  The studies and statistics are chilling; people who are not black or Hispanic and have money generally do not have these experiences. And once in the legal system, it is often difficult to get out or, as in Kalief's case, even get a trial. The plea deals offered to inmates waiting for a trial are too attractive, compared to languishing in jail for an uncertain outcome. "In 2011, in the Bronx, only a hundred and sixty-five felony cases went to trial; in 3,991 cases, the defendant pleaded guilty." I don't know about New York, but in many states a conviction for a felony (i.e. guilty plea) results in the felon not having the right to vote, cannot get public housing, often cannot find a job and faces other social and financial restrictions. Keep in mind, many people take a guilty plea deal even if they are innocent, just to get out of jail and back to some semblance of normalcy.

Racism in America is institutionalized. It is inherent in policing, in the justice system, in the financial system and many other areas of our society. It is often hard to get a grasp on racism and hold it up for scrutiny because many individual acts are not on their face intentionally racist. But taken as a whole, too many parts of our democracy have inherent bias against poor and minority people. 

We need to shine a bright light on the cases like Kalief Browder. There need to be severe consequences for people in the system who perpetrate these outrages. There need to be major changes in how the machinery of "democracy" works in order to guarantee justice for all. 


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