His death is on our hands. It was fully and completely preventable. It happened on our watch. We are all responsible. End of story.
It’s not a conservative or liberal thing. It’s not a Republican or Democrat thing. It’s a New York thing. It’s an American thing. And this morning, I’m asking all of you who are listening to join me in making it right.
America failed Kalief Browder and our failure cost this young man his life. We should all be ashamed. I sincerely think that the only way we can even begin to atone for what our state did to Kalief is to make sure that we put the right policies and laws in place to absolutely guarantee it never happens again.
I won’t tell all of Kalief’s story today, but for those of you who don’t know, Kalief was a kind, sweet soul of a 16-year-old kid. In a case of mistaken identity, Kalief was arrested for stealing a man’s backpack, but he was innocent. At the time, he sincerely thought that once he told the police that it wasn’t him, that he’d be released, they’d maybe apologize, and that that would be the end of the story. I wish that our justice system worked like that for young Black men. It doesn’t.
They didn’t release him. His family, like most families I know, didn’t have the money to bail him out, so they sent him to New York’s Rikers Island prison – one of the most violent, corrupt, disturbing jails in America. Jailed alongside grown men who were violent offenders and supervised by a negligent, poorly trained staff, what Kalief thought would maybe be a day or two in jail, turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years.
This young man, without ever going to trial or being convicted of a crime, spent three painful, poisonous, destructive years in jail. He was repeatedly beaten, ridiculed, and broken down at Rikers. His body, mind, and soul were crushed in that hellhole. Then, with no explanation, the charges were dropped, but who and what came out of Rikers was not who and what went in. Using bedsheets, Kalief hung himself from the window of his mother’s home in 2015, two years after his release. The pain was too much to bear. Sadly, his mother, also died last year.
Maybe you hear that story and wonder, “How does that mean New York caused Kalief’s death?” Please allow me to explain.
There are only two states in the United States that automatically charge 16-year-olds as adults for all crimes, no matter the circumstance. One is North Carolina – which has become something like the Mississippi of our time – and the other is New York. North Carolina didn’t surprise me at all, but New York? What an embarrassment.