Poverty and the criminal justice system are inextricably linked, and have been for centuries. From the days of convict leasing where newly emancipated southern African-Americans were subject to hard labor after being jailed for minor crimes for the benefit of industrialists and landowners, to the modern era of for profit private prisons that require fulfilling daily quotas, the prison system has preyed on the poor and laws have long been written and manipulated to justify this.
Since the global recession of 2008, there has been an increase in the diversity of poverty: people of all races and levels of education have found themselves in the same struggle, and with few ways in which to lift themselves out. Studies have shown that in times of economic depression, mass incarceration rates rise. How has the prison industrial system flourished in a time of economic crisis to the detriment of NYC’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens?
Even punishments for minor crimes have lifelong detrimental effects that serve to dismantle lives, families and communities. In the story of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager who was accused of stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island for 3 years, and spending a third of that duration in soiitary confinement, without ever having had a trial. Despite pressure to accept a plea deal, Browder never failed to profess his innocence and insisted on having his name cleared rather than have a record for a crime he never committed. But because he had committed a previous offense, he was ineligible for bail, which many families cannot afford. But it begs the question: why are large swaths of populations serving prison time without a trial and why must they pay for their freedom? Because of the abuse he suffered in prison and the mental deterioration from long stretches of solitude, Kalief was driven to suicide three years ago this week, leaving behind a devastated family who still advocates for justice in his name.
In this Clip of the Week from Represent NYC, Senator Brian Benjamin talks with Metropolitan Black Bar Association President Jason Clark, 100 Suits for 100 Men Founder Kevin Livingston and Principal Lawyer David Jeffries about how our country's bail system has destroyed the lives and communties of people of color, punishing them for being poor, and if reforming the system is possible. More and more, people are being put into notoriously harrowing prisons like Rikers even for minor offenses like turnstile jumping, and incarceration leaves people to lose housing, jobs and breaks up family units, and many are unable to ever recover. There are still hundreds of Kaliefs languishing in prison because society has decided poverty is a crime. Watch the whole episode now to learn more about bail abolition.