Waiting Years For A Trial

Arrested at sixteen, Kalief Browder was imprisoned at Rikers Island for three years without ever being convicted of a crime. His case was eventually dismissed. From Jennifer Gonnerman’s excellent coverage of the injustice:

In order for a trial to start, both the defense attorney and the prosecutor have to declare that they are ready; the court clerk then searches for a trial judge who is free and transfers the case, and jury selection can begin. Not long after Browder was indicted, an assistant district attorney sent the court a “Notice of Readiness,” stating that “the People are ready for trial.” The case was put on the calendar for possible trial on December 10th, but it did not start that day. On January 28, 2011, Browder’s two-hundred-and-fifty-eighth day in jail, he was brought back to the courthouse once again. This time, the prosecutor said, “The People are not ready. We are requesting one week.” The next court date set by the judge—March 9th—was not one week away but six. As it happened, Browder didn’t go to trial anytime that year. An index card in the court file explains:

June 23, 2011: People not ready, request 1 week.

August 24, 2011: People not ready, request 1 day.

November 4, 2011: People not ready, prosecutor on trial, request 2 weeks.

December 2, 2011: Prosecutor on trial, request January 3rd.

The Bronx courts are so clogged that when a lawyer asks for a one-week adjournment the next court date usually doesn’t happen for six weeks or more. As long as a prosecutor has filed a Notice of Readiness, however, delays caused by court congestion don’t count toward the number of days that are officially held to have elapsed. Every time a prosecutor stood before a judge in Browder’s case, requested a one-week adjournment, and got six weeks instead, this counted as only one week against the six-month deadline. Meanwhile, Browder remained on Rikers, where six weeks still felt like six weeks—and often much longer.

In an additional post, Gonnerman highlights Rikers’ use of solitary confinement on teens – a practice the jail has promised to phase out:

Jail officials say that there are now fifty-one inmates in solitary confinement between sixteen and seventeen years old. By January 1st, that number should be down to zero, if jail officials follow through on their promise. Meanwhile, the months that Browder spent locked in the Bing left him with his own theories about the power dynamics of solitary. In his view, its very setup insured that guards who wanted to dole out extra punishment to inmates—deprive them of the phone or rec or even food—could get away with it. Among the general jail population, Browder said, “they’ll do their job, because they know the inmates will jump on them. But in solitary confinement, they know everybody is locked in, so they curse at us, they talk disrespectful to us, because they know we can’t do nothing.”

Jon Walker connects Browder’s case to the war on drugs:

A very big reason the justice system is overwhelmed and conditions at our prisons are so terrible is due to overcrowding from the drug war. According to the FBI’s nationwide statistics, “The highest number of arrests were for drug abuse violations.” … This doesn’t just hurt people caught up in the drug war and their families. It harms everyone who needs to use the justice system including the victims and those accused of all other crimes. The drug war has so overwhelmed our system of justice that it is has effectively destroyed the constitutional right to a speedy trial.