Despite Promised Reforms, Rikers Island Case Backlog Keeps Growing

Eighteen months after the city’s mayor promised major changes in the criminal justice system, survivors want answers.

Rikers Island prison complex; Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder. (Photos: Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Erik McGregor/Getty Images)

Oct 27, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

NEW YORK—On Wednesday afternoon, Akeem Browder sat in a sparsely attended meeting in a windowless city council room, dressed in a navy blue suit and tie. The hearing was called to offer an update on what city officials have done in the past 18 months to speed up justice for people awaiting trial in New York City’s jails.

Sixteen months earlier, Browder’s little brother, Kalief, took his life. The 22-year-old had spent three years on Rikers Island, including 800 days in solitary confinement, waiting for a trial that never came. The city vowed to reform the system, but the Committee on Courts and Legal Services revealed this week that little has changed. When the mayor’s office announced its reform initiative, there were 1,427 people locked up on Rikers who had been awaiting trial for more than a year. Council members lamented that as of Tuesday, between 1,300 and 1,400 of the roughly 9,700 people behind bars at the jail still fit that description.

The long-awaited and underwhelming update comes two weeks after Browder’s mother, Venida, died of heart complications.

“I’ve now lost two people in my family,” Browder testified. “My brother is now suffering from major depression and saying he doesn’t want to be here without my mom. I’m suffering from depression. My other brother is drinking more. My mother held the family together.... She lost her life to this stress.”

She attended every one of Kalief’s more than 30 court hearings during his incarceration, going on to champion reforms in his name after his release from jail and then after his death.

“They told him, ‘We’re going to break you,’ ” Venida Browder said in a video interview with The Marshall Project before her death. “That’s what [the corrections officers] told my baby. And in reality, they did.”

Justice Reboot—the sweeping initiative Mayor Bill de Blasio launched 18 months ago—was touted as a means to overhaul some of the most criticized parts of New York City’s criminal justice system by restoring fairness and bringing it “into the 21st century.”

The plan had two main objectives: to reduce the number of people detained at Rikers Island who have been awaiting trial for more than a year and to streamline the city’s criminal summons system to make it easier to navigate. In spite of the lofty goals, the diagnosis on Wednesday was grim.

“We are barely treading water,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, chair of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, addressing the audience in the hearing room. “I wish that we were here today to celebrate the city having made progress, but we’re not.”

While representatives from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice noted that they had cleared 91 percent of the initial 1,427 target cases and beat their deadline for doing so, associate counsel Chidinma Ume admitted that “the bathtub had filled back up again,” referring to the comparable number of cases that had replaced them. Pressed by Lancman and other council members on why more progress hadn’t been made, Ume and other staff members described bureaucratic hurdles and larger systemic challenges that stand in the way of making more significant progress while defending gains that have been made.

Ume noted that her office was “eager to share what we’re learning with the public” but that she couldn’t “promise a time line.” Following the hearing, the Office of Criminal Justice declined to comment on the record to TakePart regarding the next steps it might take.

“It’s very frustrating and almost unbelievable that the city does not have a single long-term solution 18 months after the initiative was announced,” Lancman told TakePart on Thursday. “Give us one thing that we can all rally behind and contribute to solving the systemic problems that make it difficult for cases to move through the system. We intend to keep pressure on the administration.”

RELATED: Watch Venida Browder Explain How Solitary Confinement Destroyed Her Son

Kalief Browder’s harrowing story became a nationwide symbol of the criminal justice system’s many shortcomings—both in and out of New York City.

Browder family attorney Paul Prestia testified on Wednesday that following the Justice Reboot announcement, which came just two months before he took his life, Kalief “was pleased that what he had spoken about was going to effect some change. This was one of several reforms inspired by [him].”

Yet, Prestia noted, little has changed—a frustration echoed by Akeem Browder.

“I don’t understand when the city stopped caring about families,” he said. “To know that my mother didn’t see justice before Kalief passed and before she passed is really hard for me. My mother did lose faith in what the system had to offer.”