Kalief Browder of the Bronx was just 16 when he was accused of stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island prison, where he would spend the next three years — two of them in solitary confinement — even though his case never went to trial.
Unfortunately, Zachary Katznelson told an audience in New Brunswick, Browder’s case is not unique. What happened to him, he said, “happens to young black people in our justice system. White skin and privilege matter. Race matters at every stage of our criminal justice system.”
Katznelson, a supervisor at the Legal Aid Society of New York’s Prisoners’ Rights program, spoke Nov. 14 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple.
He explained that Kalief’s parents couldn’t afford the $3,000 bail, so he languished in prison; the district attorney, Katznelson said, kept “stringing along” the case. Still, the teen maintained his innocence, refusing plea deals.
“Rikers Island is a place where violence is the norm,” said Katznelson. “It is a hellhole. Kalief was beaten by guards and beaten by other prisoners” and was finally released when the prosecution acknowledged “it had no case.”
For the last 15 years, Katznelson has worked to shed light on inequality in the American criminal justice system. He previously was senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, which included his taking on death penalty and juvenile justice cases throughout the South. He also has been involved in inspecting prison conditions in California, advocated for women accused of killing their abusers, and represented terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
Katznelson provided statistics on arrest, incarnation, and sentencing at the federal, state, and local level, showing a disparity that he said depicts a system rife with racism. While nationally the crime rate has risen only by 2 percent since the 1970s, the prison population has spiked by 400 percent, and 40 percent of those inmates are black.
“New Jersey has the most stark contrast of any state” between minority and white inmates, said Katznelson. It also has five times the national rate of children tried as adults, and 87 percent of the time they are “persons of color.”
But New Jersey is not alone. Nationally, 2.2 million juveniles are imprisoned, and one in nine black children, many from single-parent homes, has a parent in prison. Katznelson said the cost of caring for these children plus the expense of incarcerating their parents has cost trillions of dollars.
“Blacks and whites break traffic laws at about the same rate,” he said, “but blacks are twice as likely to be stopped by police. You are twice as likely to have your car searched for contraband if you are black.”
While marijuana use is roughly the same among races, in New Brunswick, he said, blacks are arrested for possession 3.3 times more than whites; Latinos are arrested 2.2 times more than whites.
Moreover, the stress of constant noise and the risk of being attacked at any moment in overcrowded prisons takes a toll not only on inmates, but also on guards, who have high rates of divorce and suicide, said Katznelson.
Despite the system’s inequities, Katznelson said, for the last eight years, the federal Department of Justice “has been an ally” in enacting reforms. However, he said, under President-elect Donald Trump, “I don’t think it will be there.”
He said Jews could look to the Torah as a guide in seeking justice. While it includes instances of revenge — he cited Dinah’s brothers destroying an entire city to avenge her rape — he also cited several instances in which compassion for offenders is urged, including God’s informing Jonah that he had spared the evil city of Nineveh from destruction because its residents had repented. And Deuteronomy states that a person is to be punished with no more than 40 lashes “lest your kin be degraded before your eyes.”
“My interpretation is that you should not demand more punishment than is necessary,” Katznelson said, adding that the Torah indicates that needlessly harsh or unfair penalties degrade the punished, the community, and all involved in the penalty, including the judge.
As for Kalief Browder, after being released he tried to re-enter society, earning a high school equivalency diploma and enrolling in college. After an article about him appeared in The New Yorker magazine, celebrities offered assistance.
However, Katznelson said, the youth had a hard time getting past his prison experience; he would lock himself in his room for long stretches, reliving his solidarity confinement, and would often panic about being attacked on the subway.
Soon there was a failed suicide attempt, and last year he pushed an air conditioner out of a window at his parents’ home, placed a cord around his neck, and hanged himself. He was 22 years old.