On May 15, 2010, Kalief Browder and a friend were walking home from a party in the Bronx when they were stopped by police officers. He was accused of stealing a backpack stuffed with a camera, an iPod Touch, a credit card and $700 in cash.
Browder, a 16-year-old African-American, had no incriminating evidence against him and denied stealing anything. He was arrested and charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault.
Because he was on probation for taking a bakery truck on a joyride, Browder was not released. Instead, he was sent to a juvenile facility on Riker's Island known for "a deep-seated culture of violence."
Bail was set at $3,000, a sum his family could not pay.
He wound up spending three years at Riker's, much of that time in solitary confinement. During this time, he was brutalized by guards and other inmates, some incidents of which were captured on video.
Not surprisingly, he was traumatized by the event. He attempted suicide on more than one occasion in and out of custody. On June 16, 2015, he succeeded.
He was never placed on trial and never convicted of the offense. Charges against him were eventually dropped.
This example of what I can only call bureaucratic murder makes me feel sick every time I think about it. It also makes a travesty of the promise of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, according to which no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.
As far as I know, nothing on that scale of awfulness has happened in West Virginia, but we have similar issues with low-income, low-risk nonviolent offenders wasting away in regional jails because they can't afford bail.
It causes untold suffering, clogs up the jail and prison system and costs a lot of money.
Speaking of money, the Gazette-Mail's Phil Kabler recently reported, "Counties paid the Regional Jail Authority more than $1.9 million in 2018 to jail individuals unable to post bond of $1,000 or less for misdemeanor charges."
That year, 3,750 people jailed on misdemeanor charges spent an average of 11 days in jail before they were released or were able to post bail. One person spent 127 days in jail due to lack of money to post a $500 bond.
That added up to 41,058 days that the counties had to pay for, to the tune of $48.25 per person per day. Because that doesn't cover the full cost, they had to kick in an additional $18,750.
In human terms, this can have devastating effects on those incarcerated and their families. Even short of extreme violence and suicide, lots of bad things can happen behind bars, many of which are not conducive to improving civic behavior or promoting public safety in the long run. And overcrowded jails and prisons are unsafe both for those who work there and those who are incarcerated.
There is a further issue here. Our state prisons are already overcrowded. So much so, in fact, that hundreds of people (1,205 in 2016, for example) sentenced to state prisons are still warehoused in regional jails, which are not designed to be long-term facilities. Many cannot access educational and other programs offered in prisons that might make them eligible for treatment, training or parole.
To state the obvious, having hundreds of people doing time in the jails at public expense simply because they are poor only makes things worse all the way around.
Fortunately, there is a growing and bipartisan awareness of this problem at the legislature these days. A (very modest) bail reform bill, HB 2190, passed the House and is up for consideration in the Senate. It allows people charged with certain nonviolent offenses to be released on their own recognizance. It could have been stronger, but at least it's a step in the right direction.
Words written by then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1964 still ring true today: "The rich man and the poor man do not receive equal justice in our courts. And in no area is this more evident than in the matter of bail."
(This appeared as an op-ed in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch.)